A scientific committee that advises Canada's government on endangered species said Friday that climate change is a threat to the survival of the polar bear, but the species does not face extinction.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada determined that the polar bear was a "special concern species" because evidence wasn't strong enough to recommend elevating the polar bear's status to threatened or endangered.
"That's not to say that it's not in trouble," said committee chairman Jeff Hutchings. "A special concern species is a species at risk in Canada."
Hutchings said that the committee is not recommending changing the status because it's difficult to calculate how melting summer sea ice — the polar bear's habitat — correlates with declining numbers of the species.
"Does a 10 percent reduction in sea ice result in a 10 percent reduction in polar bears? There's lots of models, lots of predictions, lots of projections, and the committee felt that there is still sufficient uncertainty...to determine how precisely polar bears might be affected by reductions in sea ice."
However, Pete Ewins of the World Wildlife Fund pointed out that seven of Canada's 13 populations are either in decline or showing signs of stress such as reduced body weight due to climate change.
Ewins called the committee's recommendation not to change the polar bear's status "an easy way out."
Along with the reduction of sea ice, a consequence of increasing temperatures, Hutchings also noted that over-harvesting in the northern part of the polar bears' range puts the bears at risk of survival.
If Environment Minister John Baird accepts the group's findings, Canada would need to address threats to the animal's survival, including climate change.
"Our government believes that the polar bear is an iconic symbol of Canada. As such, we also believe we have a responsibility to ensure its population is strong and its future is certain," said Baird in a statement Friday.
Report due in August
In Ottawa, Baird said the government will begin consulting environmentalists, scientists and wildlife managers on how to proceed after he receives the committee's report in August. But a management plan wouldn't be required until 2014 — a date by which some scientists believe the Arctic could be completely free of summer sea ice.
If the polar bear had been placed in the "threatened" status, Canada would have required prohibitions like bans on hunting and destruction of habitat for the country's estimated 15,500 polar bears, roughly two-thirds of the global population.
The Canadian discussion on the polar bear's status mirrors a similar debate in the United States, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is deciding whether to declare the animals endangered.
Last September, the US Geological Survey said that two-thirds of the world's polar bears could be gone by mid-century if predictions of melting sea ice hold true.
The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada examined 31 various species and concluded the ferruginous hawk was upgraded to threatened from special concern, while two populations of the eastern foxsnake in Ontario are now considered endangered.