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Photo: Smudge 9000 / Flickr

The final polar bear recovery plan released by the U.S. Department of the Interior acknowledges that global warming is driving polar bears toward extinction but fails to require the large-scale reductions in greenhouse gases needed to save the species. The plan’s recovery goals are so weak that they allow for the disappearance of Alaska’s two polar bear populations.

“Polar bears are starving and drowning as their sea ice melts away, but this toothless plan shrugs off the one solution that will save them — carbon pollution cuts,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Today’s recovery plan confirms that staying on our current carbon-polluting pathway will not leave enough sea ice for polar bears to survive. Scientific studies show that only aggressive greenhouse gas reductions that keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius have a good chance of allowing bears to persist across their range, although in greatly reduced numbers in many regions. But the new plan’s core goals and recovery requirements do not call for making the science-based pollution cuts needed to recover polar bears.

The plan also allows for massive reductions in polar bear populations. Under the plan polar bears can be considered recovered even if the population drops by 85 percent from current levels. In practice this means that Alaska’s two polar bear populations could be extirpated and the species could still be declared recovered. The plan also fails to require reductions in other important threats to the polar bear: oil and gas drilling, increasing Arctic shipping, and contaminants.

Today’s plan comes as Arctic sea-ice extent plummeted to a record low during October and November and reached the second lowest extent on record in December.

“This recovery plan is just too risky for the polar bear,” said Wolf. “Recovery plans work, but only if they truly address the threats to species. Sadly that simply isn’t the case with this polar bear plan.”

The United States protected polar bears as “threatened” in 2008 following the Center’s listing petition. A 2015 study found one of Alaska’s polar bear populations, in the southern Beaufort Sea, had declined by 40 percent over 10 years. The status of the other population, in the Chukchi Sea, remains “data deficient.”

A 2016 U.S. Geological Survey analysis shows both Alaska populations are likely to be in the highest risk category of “greatly decreased” as early as 2025 if greenhouse gases aren’t reduced. Another study published in December projected that polar bears are likely to decline by more than 30 percent over the next 35 years.

The Endangered Species Act requires the Service to develop and implement a recovery plan for all protected species. The plans must identify specific criteria needed to save the species from extinction and recover it to the point that legal protections are no longer needed.

2012 study concluded that the Act has been successful in recovering listed plants and animals: 90 percent of sampled species have achieved recovery rates that coincide with the goals specified by their recovery plan.

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