Preserving Polar Bears for Our Children

12/06/2010 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

My son Carson is eleven years old. And though at times he may think he's a grown up, he still has many years ahead of him before he's an adult. Like most parents, I want my child to have the same opportunities I had growing up -- which is why it breaks my heart to think that by the time he's my age, one of America's most iconic creatures could be gone forever -- the polar bear.

Climate change has had such a dramatic impact on polar bear populations that my son's generation could be the last to see polar bears on U.S. shores. With their homes literally melting away beneath their feet, there are now fewer than 20,000 polar bears left on Earth. Less than a decade ago most of these same populations were considered healthy, even growing. Now it's commonplace to hear reports of drowned polar bears, hungry bears wandering into Alaska Native villages in search of food, even cannibalism, along with more and more scientific reports of multi-year sea ice -- prime polar bear habitat -- shrinking and disappearing altogether. Running out of places to call home, polar bears are in serious trouble.

This week the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge celebrates its 50th anniversary. The refuge also happens to be the most important onshore polar bear denning habitat in Alaska. And bears aren't the only animals that make their homes in this pristine northern wilderness -- despite its chilly disposition, the refuge supports an incredibly diverse ecosystem, including the famous Porcupine caribou herd. Yet this national treasure has been caught up in a decades-long battle between those who wish to preserve the refuge's integrity, and those who seek to open it up for oil and gas drilling. Such a move could be catastrophic for polar bears, from the impacts the bears' habitat to the increased difficulties of hunting prey frightened off by noise and infrastructure. And for what purpose? A limited amount of oil that the U.S. Energy Information Administration says won't even make a dent in the price at the pump, let alone in our country's addiction to oil and other dirty fossil fuels.

As the candles are blown out on its 50th birthday cake, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is safe from oil and gas development. But it's only a matter of time before Big Oil's lobbyists begin to push for drilling with renewed energy. And as a freshman class full of climate "deniers" settles into their new offices on the Hill, it won't be long before chants of "drill, baby, drill" begin echoing the hallways of Congress. Arctic supporters will have to continue to be strong to fend off attacks due to our country's stubborn addiction to oil and our inability to move on to cleaner, safer renewable energy. I can personally attest to the hard work that will entail -- protecting the refuge from drilling was a battle I had to fight as director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. But in order to remain an important sanctuary for polar bears, the Arctic refuge must continue to be off-limits to energy development.

But there is more that we can do to save the polar bear. Besides protecting the refuge from oil and gas exploration, we also need to address one of the biggest problems for the bear, and that's food. With the loss of multi-year sea ice, and with it their food source, ice dependant seals, polar bears will be stuck on land more often, looking for ways to feed themselves.

Already, this is leading to bears entering communities in search of food. Alaska Native communities have traditionally used ice cellars to store their food. With hungry polar bears increasingly staying on land, these communities are looking at more secure ways to store their food that will not attract bears. Defenders of Wildlife and World Wildlife Fund are providing polar bear resistant food lockers for a pilot program in coastal community of Kaktovik. If we can find alternative ways to store food in these communities, we will be saving the lives of people and polar bears alike.

While Defenders is finding ways to discourage polar bears from accessing food in rural communities, we are also exploring safe ways to feed polar bears on land. Defenders is working in partnership with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the Service) to host a workshop of science experts in June 2011 to consider supplemental and diversionary feeding and ways to replicate and build on other methods of reducing human-polar bear conflicts. The results of the workshop will shape the Service's decisions regarding polar bear management in Alaska.

There are other ways to help the polar bear, including ending all trophy hunting; ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; protecting the bears' prey base, such as a recent government proposal to list six Arctic seal species threatened by diminished sea ice; and in the end, working with zoos and wildlife scientists on how best to preserve the polar bear's diverse gene pool should climate change claim entire populations.

The only thing more tragic than the loss of Alaska polar bears would be Americans making the conscious decision to destroy what may be their only hope for survival in exchange for a few drops of oil. I don't want to have to tell my son that because my generation valued filling up their Hummers more than protecting this unique and incredible animal, the only polar bears he'll know will be those in a zoo, or worse -- featured in old Coca-Cola commercials. Our country has had great successes with restoring imperiled wildlife. Let's make sure that the polar bear is one of those successes.