The polar bear can be found in just one place in United States — Alaska — and is perhaps as much a symbol of the state as alligators are of Florida. So you might think Alaska's politicians would be pounding on doors in Washington to protect it.
You would be wrong.
As the U.S. government decides whether to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, Gov. Sarah Palin and the state's Republican congressional delegation are solidly opposed to the idea.
Listing the polar bear would trigger a plan to protect the shrinking Arctic sea ice. And that, Alaskans fear, could dim chances for a proposed project that could bring the state's next big boom: a natural gas pipeline that would tap the North Slope's vast reserves.
"This is yet another example of how a law with the best of intentions has been subverted by the lawyers for the extreme environmental organizations and the liberal Democratic leadership," Rep. Don Young said.
Alaska's elected officials reject climate models that predict a complete summer meltdown of the polar ice cap by 2030 or sooner. They also dispute a U.S. Geological Survey study that predicts polar bears in Alaska could be wiped out by 2050.
Listing polar bears as threatened "would establish a dangerous precedent based on mathematical models instead of biological observations," Sen. Ted Stevens said Tuesday.
Similarly, Alaska political leaders have ardently supported the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, despite strong opposition from environmentalists and politicians in the continental U.S. The issue is still before Congress.
Andrew Wetzler of Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that sued to protect polar bears, said the state's position, scientifically speaking, is "mostly gibberish" and "motivated by economic concerns and political concerns."
He said that there is considerable evidence of a decline in polar bears in Canada and Alaska — with some of the animals starving, turning to cannibalism and drowning — and that most scientists believe the drop-off is directly related to the loss of sea ice.
Listing the species
Listing a species as "threatened" means it is likely to become endangered. "Endangered" is even more dire and means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or much of its range.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service missed its Jan. 9 deadline for a decision on the polar bear. Director Dale Hall said that the agency had never declared a species threatened or endangered because of climate change and that it needed more time to "do it right and have it explained properly to the public."
Alaska was built on booms — fur, gold, military expansion, oil — and the state is in need of another one.
Nearly 90 percent of Alaska's unrestricted revenue for next year is projected to come from the oil industry, and state leaders fear the not-so-distant future when oil earnings fall dramatically with a drop in production.
Hoping to drum up revenue
The mighty trans-Alaska pipeline has been running at less than half its capacity since 2000, and only high oil prices have prevented a dive in state income.
The proposed $26 billion natural gas pipeline would be the largest private-sector project ever undertaken in North America. It would tap 35 trillion cubic feet of proven natural gas reserves on Alaska's North Slope.
Summer sea ice in Alaska dropped last year to its lowest level in 38 years of satellite record-keeping, falling to 1.65 million square miles, or about 1.15 million square miles less than the average from 1970 to 2000. The loss is bigger than the combined area of Alaska, Texas, California and Georgia.
A 2006 USGS study put the number of polar bears in the Beaufort Sea at 1,526, compared with 1,800 in 1986. But USGS researchers said the studies used different counting methods and the numbers cannot be directly compared.