ANCHORAGE - A conservation group filed a formal petition Wednesday seeking to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Polar bears could become extinct by the end of the century because their sea ice habitat is melting away due to global warming, contends Kassie Siegel, lead author of the 154-page petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity.
She contends the United States must quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a fraction of current levels or polar bears will become extinct.
"Greenhouse gas emissions can be drastically cut with sound policy changes that will not decrease quality of life, such as by increasing fuel efficiency standards for automobiles," she said. "But we must act now."
In Alaska, there are two populations of polar bears, said Rosa Meehan, chief of the marine mammal management program for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency which must respond to the petition.
The Beaufort Sea stock off Alaska's northern coast is estimated at 2,000 animals.
"That stock is stable or perhaps increasing," she said, based on long-term mark and recapture studies.
Less is known about the Bering-Chukchi stock off Alaska's northwest coast. The population is shared with Russia. A 1998 estimate put their numbers at 2,000 to 5,000.
"We don't know the status of that stock," Meehan said. "It's in a very remote place so it's difficult to count."
The two stocks are adjacent and biologists surmise that with sea ice conditions that are similar, the Bering-Chukchi stock is in the same condition as the Beaufort stock.
"We don't know that," Meehan said. "It's just a guess."
The Marine Mammal Protection Act provides for unlimited harvest by subsistence hunters. Killing them in Russia is illegal, Meehan said, but some are killed and the amount is unknown. A treaty to manage the bears jointly with Russia was signed in October 2000 and has passed the U.S. Senate.
"We're waiting for implementation legislation to get that up and running," Meehan said.
Polar bears are the largest of all bear species. They live only in the Arctic and are found only in areas where sea ice occurs for a significant portion of the year.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, there are 19 recognized populations of polar bears that occur within the jurisdiction of five countries. Besides Alaska, they are in Canada, Norway, Greenland and Russia.
Polar bears use sea ice for feeding, mating and maternity denning, Siegel said. They feed primarily on ringed seals.
The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 22,000 to 25,000 bears worldwide.
Siegel said seasonal sea ice is breaking up earlier each spring and forming later in the autumn. Shorter periods of sea ice means polar bears have less time to hunt and must endure longer periods of fasting on land, she said.
The petition cites global warming as the primary threat to polar bears, but also lists oil and gas development, high levels of contaminants such as PCBs and overhunting of some populations.
Listing under the Endangered Species Act would provide broad protection to polar bears, including a requirement that federal agencies ensure that government actions not "jeopardize the continued existence" of polar bears, or adversely modify their habitat.
The petition sets off a 90-day review by the Fish and Wildlife Service and an evaluation of whether further study is warranted, Meehan said.
If the agency decides the petition has merit, biologists nine months later would present a 12-month finding and decide whether a listing was warranted.
Public review, evaluation of public comment and a final decision would take at least one more year, Meehan said.