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Polar Bears Candidate for International Protection as a Migratory Species

Zak Smith

Posted June 12, 2014 in Saving Wildlife and Wild Places

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Polar bear with cub. Credit: Scott Schliebe/USFWS

Last week, Norway submitted a proposal to give polar bears greater protection through the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (known as “CMS”). If the members to the convention accept Norway’s proposal at their 11th meeting in Quito, Ecuador, in early November, polar bears will be listed on CMS Appendix II, which requires Norway and other members to enter into agreements that will restore polar bears to a “favorable conservation status.” Recognizing the primary threat climate change poses to polar bears—the US, Norway, and Russia will lose their polar bear populations by the end of the century—Norway’s proposal outlines the critical need for coordinated action.

Norway’s doing really great work here. Its proposal is solid, relying on an impressive stack of scientific literature and an understanding that current protective measures and regimes aren’t up to the task of saving the species. I’m not surprised. Any honest assessment has to conclude that unless we take steps now to curb arctic warming, strengthen populations by eliminating the global market for polar bear hides, and bar additional habitat degradation from industrial development, the future for polar bears is bleak: rapid habitat loss over the coming decades with reduced populations ultimately eking out an existence in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago until that habitat also disappears.

A CMS Appendix II listing could compel a new approach, as noted in CMS’s summary of the polar bear proposal:

The Polar Bear, an apex predator that spends much of each year on the sea ice hunting, covers distances of up to 1,000 kilometres. Now proposed for listing on Appendix II, a global perspective, including the better understanding of the impacts of climate change on Polar Bears could be added to the conservation policies that countries in the region have worked on for decades.

Sounds reasonable, which means some countries (i.e., Canada) will probably pull out all the stops to keep polar bears from being listed. Even though Canada’s not a member of CMS (nor is the United States, although the United States has participated in some of the Convention’s Memorandums of Understanding) it may seek to pressure member states to keep polar bears off Appendix II as it pushes back on most proposals that lend protection to the species. That’s been its practice internationally—objecting to a ban on the international commercial trade in polar bears at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—and domestically—refusing to list polar bears as threatened or endangered under its Species at Risk Act.

Nonetheless, even if it is an uphill battle, today we should raise our glasses to toast Norway and wish it luck as it brings its proposal to the CMS Conference of the Parties in November.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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