Bears in a World of Indifference

Currently, our Ship of State has been “listing” to the extent that our homes, our nation could sink in a sea of debt — recent government policies have put our country into eminent danger of default, an event which would take the whole world as we know it down the well. It is ever more disturbing to me that each person in the US now owes a $30,000 portion of our national debt, on top of whatever else we owe personally. Furthermore, Japan, China, or almost any combination of three nations of wealth (say Germany, Saudi Arabia, and India) could foreclose on the US and Bingo!– economic collapse. While we fight a war with money we borrow from the Chinese, the Japanese, and others, we mortgage our children’s future and export our jobs, endlessly. Rather than have slaves, our moneyed classes now outsource employment to people who earn less than our slaves did before the Civil War. Exporting jobs, it seems to me, can be a lot like importing slaves. Maybe it is time to think about such things? Private people, non-profits like GBF, are holding the line to a limited extent; but I see little hope for critters like bears in the long term, if we continue down our current track as a nation.

Take listing the polar bears under the US Endangered Species Act. Our government was sued just after Christmas to force listing. The deadline for public comment was April 9, 2007, and GBF helped to generate hundreds of letters to the Anchorage Office of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. There was massive public support for the listing, but you can bet that the Federal Government will not list the polar bear. Why? Because there will be massive corporate pressures from the shipping industry and from the huge oil companies, among others, to not list them. The lobbyists will line up ten-deep by each politician, and will be loaded with money, because the ESA is such a powerful Act.

Even though the Arctic is suffering massively already from global warming, and one of the most vulnerable species is the polar bear, they will be left to the melting ice and dying ringed seals — with only a small number able to survive on tundra berries, flightless geese and whatever grasses and sedges and edible kelp they can find.

Polar bears exist on the living resources of the polar seas. Just under the 10-12 feet of sea ice, there is sunlight, nutrients, and growing “food chain” species — algae, copepods, shrimp, cod, ringed seals, etc. The bears live on the seals when they come up to breathe, or come out into the ice to have their pups and sun themselves. The seals eat the cod from the underwater food chain, and thereby connect the under-ice and above-ice worlds.

Shipping through the “Northwest Passage” in Arctic Canada, which opened last summer after being frozen, land-fast ice for thousands of years, is eminent. The route is 2-3,000 miles closer, Asia to Europe. Even now, you can bet that corporations are making plans and plotting strategies, but not about bears. In addition, the continental shelves of the Polar Basin promise vast riches in oil and gas, and people just don’t know that the Arctic Ocean is a very small and unique ocean. It is extremely vulnerable to pollution or misuse, AND is open to almost any extreme of industrial use. Russia controls almost half of the entire Basin, and is not known for being “environmentally sensitive.” With the ice gone, Canada will be hard-pressed to maintain control of the Passage and of Hudson Bay/Hudson Strait.

The delisting of the Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly brown bears has just happened (April, 2007). The delisting was completed even though nationwide public comment opposed the delisting by about 99-1. In GBF’s view, the Yellowstone habitat for grizzlies is (bottom line) going down, because of commercial, county, state in-roads — subdivision, urban sprawl, new highways and developments of all sorts. The population curve has come up since the grizzlies were first listed in 1975, but today the habitat curve is going DOWN. Population curves MUST follow habitat curves. Moreover, the grizzlies have lost/are losing two major food sources — whitebark pine nuts and the cutthroat trout, now being decimated by illegal introductions of lake trout into Yellowstone Lake.

In addition, with the grizzly bear under the ESA, they were a federal animal, with the entire nation — 300 million people — “paying the grizzly bills.” Grizzlies are an extremely expensive animal to maintain, in terms of research, management, law enforcement, habitat management, etc. The three states involved (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming) have about 1.5 million people, and will not want to fund grizzlies adequately, when (a few years from now) not much federal money will be dedicated. There will be a splash of big money, politicians and bureaucrats being applauded, the first few years; and then the bears will start to hurt again. Maybe my crystal ball is flawed, but this seems a poor time to be delisting the grizzly. Also, global warming IS coming, by all credible accounts, and the Montana/Idaho/Wyoming mountains have almost the exact same annual weather as does the Arctic. You tell me why I’m wrong ….

CHARLES JONKEL is president of the Missoula-based Great Bear Foundation