V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Polar bears on thin ice

Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers February, 2008.

How deceptively gentle she appeared, as she gnawed lazily on the grass and gazed curiously at her fleet of human company.

During a trip to the north, I had the privilege of befriending the animal crowned as Lord of the Arctic.

She struck a queenly figure, even though all she did was poke her nose in the air, offended by the foreign smell of gumbo soup, and snoozed with her beautiful snowy face resting on her paw.

There's no hint of savagery in 'ol Fluffy's carriage, for though I understand she's quite capable of pawing my face off, on that day she was in a playful mood for the cameras. I got the distinct feeling she's hammed it up before.

By Fluffy, I speak of the eight-foot tall Ursus maritimus environmentalists have adopted as the pet mascot for their cause, and which politicians have cursed as their formidably furry foe, hampering the pursuit of their interests and those of their friends.

In yet another showdown between conservationists and the oil and gas industry, the polar bear is caught in the middle, much like the ubiquitous photograph of a lone polar bear stranded on a small ice floe in the middle of frigid Arctic waters, presumably with no land in sight.

After missing their second deadline on whether to designate the polar bear as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has come under fire by advocacy groups who claim the delay is conveniently timed with the sale of oil and gas rights across 29 million acres along a swath of bear habitat.

The Fish and Wildlife Service missed its first deadline of Jan. 9, as well as its second deadline of Feb. 8, but reassures a decision is to come within the month.

On Feb. 6, meanwhile, the Department of the Interior's Minerals Management Service -- which also runs the Fish and Wildlife Service -- announced record-breaking lease sales of oil and gas-drilling rights in the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan Coast. Companies submitted bids totaling almost US$3.4 billion with high bids of more than $2.6 billion. Shell submitted the highest bid for a sale at $105,304,681.

Meanwhile, a parallel saga is unfolding here as the Canadian government opened a call for oil and gas development in the Beaufort Sea -- also home to polar bears -- ahead of a status assessment due in April.

Environment Minister John Baird will have about four months to mull the report over, during which time the deadline for bidding on drilling rights -- June 2 -- in the Beaufort Sea will have come and gone, said World Wildlife Fund Canada's director of species conservation.

"So while the minister is still thinking about it, Canada has sold (drilling) rights for what I've been told could be $2 billion," said Dr. Peter Ewins. "The timing is no coincidence."

Recently, Manitoba, home to Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world, designated the bears as threatened under its own Endangered Species Act.

The move allows the province to restrict development near critical habitat on Crown and privately owned land along the Hudson Bay coastline in Manitoba.

The designation is highly symbolic, officially recognizing the impacts of climate change. It's also a move that politicians understand could hamstring political agendas in the future.

A recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times points out the far-reaching importance of the polar bear's status: "Drilling for oil in the bear's hunting waters would appear an obvious problem. But what about the motorists, thousands of miles away, using that oil to drive to work, emitting greenhouse gases as they go? ... The question of how far to go to protect the polar bear quickly becomes a debate about how much we should change our habits to slow the pace of climate change."

Meanwhile, during a stay in Iqaluit two weeks ago, Baird said that regardless of the U.S. outcome, "in Canada we'll make our own decisions."

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·  Status: Two thirds of the world's polar bears could disappear by 2050.

·  Numbers: Scientists estimate there are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears.

·  Size: Male bears are 2.5 to 3 metres tall and weigh 250 to 770 kg. Females are 1,8 to 2.5 metres tall and weigh 90 to 320 kg.

·  Adaptation: Polar bears have two layers of fur and up to 11.5 cm of blubber. They are more in danger of overheating than from the cold.

·  Diet: Seals primarily, occasionally walrus and beluga whales, also reindeer, birds, bird eggs and kelp.

·  Life span: Average 15 to 18 years.

·  Cubs: Females have first litter of cubs at 4-8 years old. Usually two cubs in a litter.

SOURCE: www.polarbearsinternational.org (see link)

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