Environment: Bears on Thin Ice

An adult polar bear needs, on average, four to five pounds of seal blubber a day to survive, and it earns every ounce of it: crouching for hours in the Arctic cold alongside an opening in the ice, waiting for a seal to surface for a breath. Although bears may spend part of the year on land, sea ice is their essential habitat; biologists have warned that Ursus maritimus could be the first large mammal to fall victim to global warming, which is rapidly shrinking the polar ice cap. And so environmentalists are delighted with the announcement by the Interior Department that it is proposing the white bear for listing as "threatened," a step below the more urgent category of "endangered."

They were even more pleased because the proposal represented a long-sought admission by a recalcitrant Bush administration of the extent and dangers of global warming. The Arctic appears to be "moving toward a new 'super interglacial' state that falls outside of natural [cycles] that have characterized the past 800,000 years," the Interior report noted. But in interviews Secretary Dirk Kemp-thorne was careful to tell reporters that the "whole aspect of climate change is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act." In fact, the listing wasn't even the administration's idea; a coalition of environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity sued the department a year ago to put polar bears on the list. Interior can now take up to an additional 12 months to actually make the designation official, and then start work on a plan to save the bears. Meanwhile, researchers announced last week that an ice shelf covering 41 square miles, apparently loosened by warm Arctic temperatures, had broken free of land on the coast of Canada's Ellesmere Island and drifted 30 miles out to sea.