Last week, the U.S. government listed the polar bear as a threatened species under its Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Interior Department made the decision under pressure, including legal petitions, from environmental organizations.

Its reluctance to legally protect the species is evident in the caveats it has placed on the listing, most notably limiting the implications for U.S. climate change policy. Nevertheless, the ruling does give polar bears more protection in the U.S. than in Canada, despite similar pressure from conservation groups here.

In April, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assessed the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) as a species of “special concern” — which is one step below a “threatened” listing and two steps below “endangered” — but the government has not yet listed it as such under the federal Species at Risk Act.

The lesser designation reflects that the species was evaluated as a whole; some populations are declining, while others aren’t yet showing it.

The bear is protected to some extent under provincial law: Manitoba, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador have all listed it under provincial endangered species acts.

Thirteen of the world’s 19 distinct polar bear populations — or 15,000 of the Arctic’s 20,000 to 25,000 bears — live in Canada, with 12 of those populations living at least partly in Nunavut. Studies have found that numbers for five populations are declining. But the factors in those declines — including melting ice floes caused by global warming, habitat loss, overhunting of some populations, increased shipping traffic and oil and gas exploration, and persistent organic pollutants — may put other populations at risk as well.

Although Environment Minister John Baird acknowledged the role of global warming in commenting on the U.S decision, both the current government and the previous Liberal government have been dragging their feet on the issue.

With global warming opening up northern seaways to more shipping and oil and gas exploration, the federal government must do more to protect polar bear habitat, on land and at sea.

COSEWIC’s recommendation that the polar bear be listed as “special concern” under the Species at Risk Act will go to government in August. Although a listing of “threatened” would lead to better protection, the “special concern” listing would at least require the federal government to prepare a management plan. Provincial and territorial protection is a patchwork approach; a national vision is needed. Baird must ensure that a management plan addresses the root of the problem by finding more ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Until this occurs, the polar bear will remain on thin ice.

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Dr. David T. Suzuki is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. He is the co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation in Vancouver where he lives with his wife and two daughters.

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