Montreal – A key NAFTA body has recommended a formal investigation into Canada’s refusal to protect its polar bears despite the grave threats posed to them by climate change.
The decision by the Secretariat of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, an environmental dispute body established under NAFTA, is responding to a 2012 petition by the US-based Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) that challenged Canada’s denial of “endangered” or “threatened” status to polar bears under the country’s Species At Risk Act (SARA).
The Secretariat’s decision identified several “central open questions” to be investigated, including whether Canada used the “best available” climate science when it declined protections for polar bears in 2011.
The Secretariat also questioned Canada’s slow pace in making listing decisions under SARA — an issue that will affect protection for polar bears and any other Canadian species threatened with extinction.
“This decision throws a dramatic spotlight on Canada’s disturbing refusal to protect polar bears from climate catastrophe,” said Sarah Uhlemann, CBD’s international program director. “Arctic warming and disappearing sea ice threaten to push polar bears off the planet. Canada needs to acknowledge the scientific facts and take action to protect these amazing animals from extinction.”
Canada currently lists the polar bear as a “species of special concern” under SARA — a status that provides no substantive protections. Canada’s listing conflicts with the United States’ 2008 decision to list polar bears as “threatened” under the US Endangered Species Act because of ongoing and projected population declines from climate change.
Scientists predict that more than two-thirds of the world’s polar bears will disappear by 2050 because of climate change, which is melting the sea ice the bears depend on to survive. Some populations, like the famed Western Hudson Bay population near Churchill, Manitoba, have already suffered serious declines. Recent science documents increasing nutritional stress in polar bears, more open-water swimming, more time on land and thus more interactions with humans, and fewer cubs.
If the review goes forward, the Commission will initiate a full factual investigation into Canada’s polar bear listing.
Separately, the CBD formally requested US trade sanctions against Canada for approving unsustainable hunting quotas in Hudson Bay. Canada approved the hunt over the objections of polar bear scientists and in violation of the 1973 Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears, a treaty signed by both Canada and the United States.
More than 600 polar bears are killed in Canada each year, including through sport hunting, and about half of those bears are later exported as skins and rugs.