Polar bears have become a surprisingly controversial animal in the past few years. The federal government surprised many people when it decided to list the bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (we’ll talk more about this statute later in the semester). Specifically, the government concluded that the bear was threatened with extinction because of environmental degradation caused by climate change.
That decision has been in litigation since it was announced. No one is really happy with it. Environmentalists wished the government had done more (like actually list the polar bear as endangered instead of threatened), and many groups do not want the bear listed at all. In the latest stage of the case, the state of Alaska and some hunting groups have announced they will appeal the district court’s decision upholding the listing.
Ostensibly, the decision to protect the bear appears about protecting the naturalresource of ‘polar bears.’ Are polar bears a natural resource though? We don’t actually hunt them anymore. There isn’t a robust trade in their fur or meat. We don’t have a tremendous number of tourists traveling up above the Arctic Circle on expeditions to visit polar bears (but my 2-year old does love to visit them at the zoo). Perhaps we should thinking about our desire to protect the polar bears as a proxy for something else. Maybe the natural resource is biodiversity, or a healthy arctic ecosystem. Maybe it is even broader than that and protecting the polar bear becomes a proxy for protecting climate stability. What exactly is the natural resource that we are trying to protect here? Does it matter whether we can identify one?