Twists and turns in polar bear protection saga

While the U.S. still pussy-foots around the issue, Manitoba made the surprise move this week of declaring polar bears a threatened species under the province's own Endangered Species Act. Of course, this doesn't have the strength of a national protected status throughout Canada, Manitoba has drawn a line in the snow, declaring "We must continue to take action to protect one of our province's most unique species, which is clearly being affected by climate change," according to provincial Conservation Minister Stan Struthers.

Polar bear populations in Manitoba dropped 22% from 1989 to 2004. There are now an estimated 925 polar bears in the province, a number that may soon drop according to scientists who have observed alarming weight-loss trends in the local population.

Meanwhile, despite protests, the U.S. yesterday moved ahead in its plan to sell oil-drilling rights in prime polar bear habitat. The lease sale drew what the AP called "robust bidding" yesterday: "Seven companies offered bids totaling nearly $3.4 billion. High bids added up to nearly $2.7 billion on 2.76 million acres."

The U.S. Minerals Management Service, which is in charge of the lease sale, has 90 days to review the bids before declaring a winner.

Of course, we're still waiting for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make a decision on listing the polar bear as an endangered species -- a move which would get in the way of the oil lease sale. How much do you want to bet that the lease sale goes through first?

In related news, the Center for Biological Diversity this week filed a petition to protect the Pacific walrus as an endangered species -- citing the same factors of climate change and oil drilling that threaten the polar bear. Will it do any good? Cross your flippers.

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