Polar bears to be listed as species at risk

Canada is set to include the polar bear on its list of species at risk, but not as a threatened or endangered species.
A polar bear faces the camera near Churchill, Man., in 2007. Canada has 13 polar bear subpopulations in Canada's territories and in parts of Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland and Labrador. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Canada is set to include the polar bear on its list of species at risk, but not as a threatened or endangered species.

The federal government gave notice this month that it intends to list the Arctic animal as a species of special concern — one level below threatened and two levels below endangered — under the Species at Risk Act.

The move would require a plan to be devised within three years to prevent the species from becoming endangered or threatened.

Environment Minister Peter Kent's office did not a return a call for comment. The proposal to list polar bears under the act was announced on July 2, and interested parties have 30 days to weigh in.

Ottawa's move comes almost three years after the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an arm's-length scientific advisory body, recommended the special-concern listing for the polar bear.

The United States listed the polar bear as a threatened species  in 2008, citing shrinking sea ice due to climate change.

Canada's Species at Risk Act came into force in 2003 to provide legal protection for wildlife in danger of becoming extinct.

Some subpopulations at risk: committee

COSEWIC, which has been assessing the polar bear's status since the 1980s, has long recommended the polar bear's inclusion on the species at risk list, most recently in 2008.

The committee has said four of Canada's 13 polar bear subpopulations are at risk of becoming threatened over the next few decades, due to shrinking sea ice in some areas and overhunting in others.

There are approximately 15,000 polar bears in Canada, accounting for 60 per cent of the world's polar bear population, according to federal estimates.

Management of polar bears in Canada is the responsibility of provincial and territorial governments, with scientific expertise from Environment Canada.

Last year, the Nunavut government argued against listing the polar bear  as a species of special concern, saying there is no clear evidence to support that designation.

Nunavut bear sightings increase

Inuit in Nunavut have reported more polar bear sightings in recent years, with some bears entering communities  and threatening public safety.

"We live in polar bear country," Nunavut Environment Minister Daniel Shewchuk said in May 2010.

"We understand the polar bears, and we do actually think our polar bear population is very, very healthy, with the exception of a couple of populations that we are taking action on."

Putting the bear on the species at risk list isn't necessary, said Drikus Gissing, director of wildlife management for the Nunavut government.

"If the federal government wants to list species because they are concerned about climate change, they need to come and list every single species in the Arctic," Gissing told The Canadian Press.

"If climate change continues it will impact every single species."

Some northern communities oppose listing

In an analysis on the impact of the regulatory change published in the Canada Gazette, the federal government acknowledges that people in some northern communities strongly oppose the inclusion of polar bears under the Species at Risk Act.

While many Nunavut Inuit feel that climate change is affecting polar bear populations, they believe that wildlife populations often fluctuate and move around.

But Gissing said the designation isn't a huge concern, since it won't take away traditional hunting rights for aboriginal people, nor will it change how Nunavut already manages bear populations.

But the risk of a federal management plan is that it could mandate a one-size-fits-all strategy for the very different bear subpopulations, pointed out Peter Ewins, the senior Arctic species officer with World Wildlife Federation Canada.

Although Ewins said he's not opposed to the polar bear being listed under federal law,  but that any management plan was likely to fail.

"The No. 1 problem that dwarfs everything else is fossil fuel induced global warming," he said.

"So a management plan that's focused on Inuit and the Arctic and habitats and things in the Arctic isn't going to do diddly-squat. If we all stopped driving cars tomorrow, that would probably start to help."

Following COSEWIC's recommendation in 2008, the federal government held public consultations on the proposed polar bear listing for more than two years.

Officials visited hundreds of aboriginal and northern communities, most of which were opposed to the change. But over 3,000 letters were also received from people living outside the Arctic Circle and the majority of them were in favour of the listing.

The government has noted that the Inuvialuit in Canada's western Arctic have expressed support for listing the polar bear as a species of special concern.

With files from The Canadian Press