People have been debating global warming, ANWR oil development and the fate of the Polar Bear as separate issues and in various intermixtures, for years. Alaskans can expect a lot more talk about Polar Bears during 2008 than in any previous year.
The Palin administration appears to be making major efforts, not only to keep the bears moved from vulnerable to endangered status, but to make it difficult for academics like UAA's Prof. Rick Steiner from gaining access to vital information about research done in Alaska on Polar Bears.
Why is it that something this important has to be gleaned from the Anchorage Daily News' Sunday Ear column? I'll quote Sheila Toomey's coverage of Steiner's situation in entirety:
Oil industry watchdog Rick Steiner recently submitted a Freedom of Information request to state Fish and Game for public records regarding the listing of polar bears as endangered. He wanted the records "to see how politics influenced their position to oppose the listing," Rick said in a note.
F&G Commissioner Denby Lloyd wrote back that the fee for what Rick wanted would be $468,784. Rick, a prof at UAA, said he's going to ask if they'll accept his IOU. Denby gently suggested Rick might want to narrow his search request. Rick not so gently suggested it was obstructionism by Palin, who has said publicly she doesn't think polar bears should be listed.
Rick Steiner is a genuine Alaska hero. He was an important figure in the Battle of Sawmill Bay during the Exxon Valdez catastrophe. Had more Cordova experts like Steiner, and fishermen like Tom Copland been heeded in the first 24 hours of the spill, the effects of Exxon's negligence would have been mitigated greatly. I dedicated a musical work about that oil spill, Shadows, to Steiner 15 years ago.
He's one of the most sought after experts in the world on oil spill response. A year and a half ago, the Lebanese government sought his advice on how to deal with the biggest oil spill in history in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Jiyeh power station oil spill, caused by the Israeli Air Force. This environmental war crime, is the most under-reported man-made and totally avoidable environmental catastrophe in recent years.
The Palin administration's treatment of Steiner, who is also an expert on the fate of the Polar Bear, is the most disturbing development I've seen in this administration. Steiner hasn't quibbled about these animals' fate. "For anyone who has wondered how global warming and reduced sea ice will affect polar bears, the answer is simple -- they die," was Steiner's response to a Wall Street Journal query back in December.
Alaskans know a lot more about bears than most people. Over the years - as in lots of years - bear species come and go. The Polar bear diverged from the Brown bear only 200,000 years ago. They were preceded in Alaska by the Arctodus Simus, a larger, less omnivorous animal that disappeared here about 12,000 years ago. All three shared Alaska for a far longer time than human civilization has existed.
There are similar numbers of Polar Bears worldwide - just around 30,000 - as there are Brown bears in Alaska. There are a similar number of Polar bears in Alaska as there are the Brown bear subspecies, the huge Kodiak Bear, around 3,000 of each. Just as Polar bears diverged from Brown bears long ago, they can mate, and do, creating the hybrid known as Nanulak.
Although the only known Nanaluk was bagged by an American hunter on Banks Island in upper Canada, Alaska communities are concerned that should the hybrid get started where the two creatures' habitats overlap, the result will be a very large, mean animal that doesn't hibernate.
Palin, for her part, sounded somewhat pragmatic in an op-ed she wrote on January 8, but her statement, "[t]o help ensure that polar bears are around for centuries, Alaska has engaged in research and worked with the federal government to protect them," appears to be disingenuous, given the demand that Prof. Steiner fork over a half a million bucks to have access to some of the information the governor touts as having been done purely on the species' behalf.
Update: Cross-posted at DailyKos