The listing proposals for CoP15 of CITES, to be held on March 13-25 in Doha, Qatar, were not posted as of this writing, but the USF&WS had issued a press release and a copy of its 19-page proposal to transfer all polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I based upon an “inferred or projected” “marked decline” in the population size due to a “decrease in area” and “quality of habitat.” The proposal is not based upon the here-and-now status nor any quantified or quantifiable loss of habitat or population.
If adopted, the proposal would become effective 30 days after March 25, the concluding day of that Conference of the Parties (CoP), regardless of when a hunter may have taken a bear. It would be a total ban on commercial trade and would require the issuance of import permits for hunting trophies, which no doubt many countries may then be reticent to approve. Since the USF&WS already banned hunting trophies under a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) that was triggered by the ESA threatened listing, the Appendix I listing will only affect foreign trade and the exempt trade of Alaskan natives, which is commercial trade. Indeed, the USF&WS may have found a way to stop the trade of native polar bear artifacts in Alaska, though it is not mentioned in the proposal at all. If the bill currently in Congress that would re-authorize import of those trophies trapped from the threatened listing, or if the bill to reopen imports passes, US hunters will additionally need CITES import permits from the International Division of the USF&WS for import.
Under CITES, the USF&WS was required to consult other range nations, i.e. countries in which polar bears range. According to the US, when consulted, “Canadian officials indicated: International trade is itself not a threat to the species population. Any polar bear from Canada found in legal international trade will have been legally harvested in Canada. A sustainable and well-managed hunt is an important part of a conservation plan. An outright ban on trade will have no impact on quotas, but it might have a negative impact on conservation.”
Norway is also one of the range countries and replied, “[a]t present, we are inclined to think it is premature to uplist the polar bear.” Supposedly, Denmark (Greenland) and the Russian Federation have not yet made a specific response to the proposal itself. We most certainly agree that it is premature and will harm the bear more than help.
Normally, wildlife managers reduce animals when they exceed habitat capacity. This proposal is unprecedented, making USF&WS the leader in advocating precautionary elimination of sustainable use by listing species decades in advance of possible and unquantifiable impacts of the global warming trend. There is most definitely an agenda here far beyond the best interest of the polar bear. It characterizes all use as an added stress that is undesirable – even ecotourism. It argues that use should be eliminated today instead of populations being reduced purposefully to be within reduced habitat capacity. Perhaps it is time for political intervention within the United States.
We have been tracking the development of this proposal but still find it hard to believe. Initially, WWF and TRAFFIC North America recommended the United States propose the transfer of the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I due to climate change. Those interrelated organizations made the same suggestion for walrus and narwhal, but the outcome of those suggestions is not yet available. WWF is attempting to turn the polar bear into the North American panda, or the elephant of the Arctic, like its panda bear logo.
The corporate motive of WWF is evident, but that of the USF&WS is not. In its July notice, 74 FR 33460, 33462, the USF&WS first announced that it was “likely to submit” the polar bear for consideration for transfer to Appendix I. Moreover, it published an extended version of its preliminary position at http://www.fws.gov/international/newspubs/fedregnot.html. It had clearly made up its mind before the publication.
There are a number of interesting points to note about the proposal. It describes the projected decline as a “marked decline” without any quantification. Most species in the world have declined. It states that the bear’s range is limited by the extent of southern sea ice but neglects to mention the improving habitat to the north of its present range. It states that sea ice thickness in the Arctic region is also declining, as if that is bad, when that makes it more favorable habitat. It states the bear to be between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bear in 19 putative populations and that a 20th population may occur in the central polar basin, but concludes that the “number of polar bear, based on research, is decreasing throughout their range.” To do that they wholly ignore the increase in Davis Strait and other areas that far exceed the declines. In fact, even the allegedly declined bear in Western Hudson Bay are now increasing because of reduction in harvest. Also, a number of tagged and tattoed bears unaccounted for in the last survey have been found nearby. The range-wide increase far outstrips the decline of less than 300 bear in Western Hudson Bay over the past 19 years. Other populations that had been overharvested, generally due to mistaken population estimates, are all increasing and are expected to continue to increase, while habitat may decrease. There is yet to be as much as a one percent reduction in the overall population numbers. The bear is one of the few in the world to still have its full range, and if it loses habitat in that range as projected, it will still have more of its original habitat and population than most other species in the world that are not so isolated and are not listed.
The proposal expresses concern for other threats that ice melt may “likely exacerbate,” including “increasing levels of ecotourism.” Nothing is sacred.
The Service states that the transfer to Appendix I “would essentially prohibit commercial trade in polar bears, including parts and products.” Between 1992 and 2006 “skins accounted for the majority (52% - 3,237 skins) commercially exported or an average of 216 skins annually, 87% from Canada and 13% from Greenland. Trade records are not clear in that ‘skins’ are sometimes treated as trophies and sometimes as ‘bodies.’ Of the skins in trade, only 14% (807) were exported/re-exported as hunting trophies and of the bodies in trade, 72% (277) were trophies.”
The Service notes that the EU, acting through its Scientific Review Group, has only made a negative finding for import of bear from Baffin Bay and Kane Basin and has a positive opinion for all other Canadian subpopulations. Of course, this proposal is intended to change that. There is no mercy for the livelihood of the people of the Arctic North.
USF&WS issued a press release that explained “[l]imiting commercial trade in this species (polar bear) will address a source of non-climate stress to polar bear populations and contribute to long-term recovery.” There is no representation that the transfer will reduce the global warming threat only that it will reduce other stresses. The proposal can be found on Conservation Force’s web site under News and Alerts at http://www.conservationforce.org/news.html.