May 16, 2008 / 1:18 AM / in 10 years

Tougher Canada action needed on polar bears: greens

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Two prominent green groups on Thursday said Canada should follow the lead of the United States and take action to protect polar bears, which are threatened by melting ice.

Washington said on Wednesday it was listing the bears as a threatened species. Although Canada is home to around two-thirds of the world’s 25,000 polar bears, Ottawa has not formally declared them in any kind of danger.

“Canada is lagging behind in its global responsibility to protect wildlife,” said Rachel Plotkin, a biodiversity policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation.

An independent Canadian scientific advisory committee recommended in 2005 that Ottawa list polar bears -- which are divided up into 13 distinct populations across the Canadian Arctic -- as a species of special concern.

The then Liberal government asked for a reassessment but the committee said last month it was sticking to its position.

Environment Minister John Baird, part of the Conservative government that took power in 2006, will receive the new report in August.

He indicated on Wednesday he would agree to list bears as a species of special concern and said stronger measures might have to be taken to help the weaker sub-populations.

Listing the polar bear as a species of concern would oblige the government to come up with a management plan to help the population, but would still allow the animals to be hunted.

“I am confident they will list it. I think they can’t get away without not listing it,” Plotkin told Reuters.

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.

Scientists say five of the 13 Canadian populations are either not growing or are declining.

Dr Peter Ewins, director of species conservation at World Wildlife Fund Canada, called for a new scientific assessment to take into account the differing fortunes of the populations.

This, he said, should lead Baird to list some of the more vulnerable groups as threatened, thereby obliging Ottawa to protect the animals’ habitats and stop hunting.

“The number one thing the government of Canada has to do is to conduct that assessment at the right scale and using world class conservation science,” Ewins told Reuters.

Asked whether he felt Baird would list the polar bear as threatened, he replied: “I think at the regional level he may well do... credible science is clearly showing that the situation is threatening and the polar bears are threatened in some of their regional situations.”

He added: “He (Baird) knows there’s a problem here... he knows what needs to be done.”

The Arctic Inuit people complain the U.S. listing will deter hunters who spend millions of dollars a year for the right to shoot the animals. Paul Okalik, premier of the Nunavut territory where most polar bears live, said populations were at a record level.

Editing by Renato Andrade

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