OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada, home to two-thirds of the world's polar bears, will not for now follow the United States and list the animals as an endangered species, Environment Minister John Baird indicated on Wednesday.
U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the bears had to be listed because their sea ice habitat was melting away.
Canada has an estimated 15,500 polar bears. Last month an official Canadian advisory council gave the polar bear its weakest classification, that of "special concern," saying the carnivores were in trouble but not at risk of extinction.
"We've got the recommendation to continue to list it as a special concern and that's a slam dunk, that's not a difficult decision," Baird told reporters, saying Canada should take unspecified "supplementary action" to protect the bears.
There was no immediate reaction from Canada's vast Arctic territory of Nunavut, home to the aboriginal Inuit people and most of the country's polar bears.
Inuit officials fear listing the bear as endangered will deter U.S. hunters, who spend millions of dollars a year for the right to shoot the animals.
The U.S. Geological Survey said last year that two-thirds of the world's polar bears could be gone by 2050 if predictions about melting sea ice hold true.
Dr Peter Ewins, director of species conservation at World Wildlife Fund Canada, praised the U.S. decision.
"Solid science has prevailed. The evidence is there for everyone to see ... (Kempthorne) has made the right decision here. This is very good news for polar bears," he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Reporting by David Ljunggren and Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson