Polar Bears: USF&WS Pisses on a Forest Fire

There's a reason she looks uncertain

There’s a reason she looks uncertain

Despite the State of Alaska’s denial, polar bears are a very seriously endangered species in Alaska. They depend upon sea ice to hunt for seals and sea ice is disappearing at an alarming rate. In particular the time when ocean ice is beyond swimming range from Alaska’s arctic coast is growing. Cubs are starving when their mothers can no longer nurse. It’s just too long between high energy meals of seal.

When a species is formally classified as “endangered” under Alaska law, the federal government is required to develop a “Conservation management plan,” describing how the government intends to recover the endangered species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has released its draft conservation management plan for Alaska’s polar bears.

USF&WS is reasonably honest about the major threat:

As identified in the final rule listing the polar bear as a threatened species under the ESA, the decline of sea ice habitat due to changing climate is the primary threat to polar bears (73 FR 28211). The single most important step for polar bear conservation is decisive action to address Arctic warming (Amstrup et al. 2010, Atwood et al. 2015), which is driven primarily by increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. Short of action that effectively addresses the primary cause of diminishing sea ice, it is unlikely that polar bears will be recovered.

But USF&WS concludes it can’t do much about climate change, that it can’t do much about the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, so the management plan is a collection of much less than even half measures. It’s metaphorically pissing on a forest fire to try and put it out.

USF&WS might have said that the risks presented by drilling for oil or gas in the Chukchi or Beaufort Seas presents too great a risk and, of course, can only contribute to more CO2 in the atmosphere, and that it should be stopped. But Royal Dutch Shell is still cleared to drill in the Chukchi Sea later this year.[^1] It’s embarrassing when your own sister federal agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management – Boem – is working against you, leasing land in polar bear habitat to produce more oil, which will produce more CO2, apart from creating vast and uncontrollable risk of an oil spill.

USF&WS’s polar bear conservation management plan does talk about limited USF&WS action on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It calls for the agency to do more to explain to the public how polar bears are being hurt by human-caused climate change, to support actions to address human-caused Arctic warming and to continue an internal campaign to become carbon-neutral by 2020. Pissing on a forest fire.

Partly the lame recovery plan is a consequence of the nature of the threat. It’s hard for a single federal agency to address a problem of international origin, even when you don’t have other branches of the federal government working against you. But partly it’s the flawed nature of the conservation plan development process. Any committee that has to address global warming and includes representatives of Conoco-Phillips and the State of Alaska is going to produce a camel, not a racehorse. And so it has.

The “plan,” such as it is, is intended to give polar bears

[T]he best possible chance to rebound when climate change is addressed. These actions include managing human-bear conflicts, collaboratively managing subsistence harvest, protecting denning habitat, and minimizing the risk of contamination from spills.

Meh. Pissing on a forest fire.

[^1]:Well, maybe not this year. The Anchorage Daily Dispatch is reporting that the Fennica, a vessel critical to Shel’s plans was sustain a breach of her hull. The cause is unknown. The Fennica has several very important roles in Shell’s drilling plans.


One thought on “Polar Bears: USF&WS Pisses on a Forest Fire

  1. That’s an expression I’ve heard before – in 1988 when Yellowstone fires were raging. As a USFS employee, I was in Wyoming for a month providing computer support to the Interagency Incident Management Team. We even had a cartoon on the cover of a daily fire report showing five F&WS employees standing around in a circle pissing on the wildfires. By the time I retired they had gotten somewhat more educated (at least regarding fires) on the standard “What to do” policies. They were always way behind the other agencies curves on resource management.

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