Polar bears are in trouble. Experts say if nothing changes, polar bears could disappear during the current century. The experts point to a loss of habitat; Arctic ice is melting. And there's a build up of toxic substances in the polar bears' food. Now, polar bears find themselves at the core of an environmental debate. While new offshore gas and oil exploration is planned closer to the bears, the U.S. government is preparing to enforce regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and greater protection of the nation's wilderness.
Scientists increasingly worry that the polar bear will not survive.
"The predictions are that if we continue on the path we are with greenhouse gas pollution, the polar bears in Alaska will disappear in less than 50 years and that is a sobering thought," said Robert Irvin, a senior vice president at Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group.
Irvin was referring to the latest study on polar bears released by the U.S. Geological Survey. It says polar bears can be saved if greenhouse gas emissions are cut.
There are an estimated 22,000 polar bears worldwide. They can swim great distances and live for short periods on land. But their habitat - Arctic Sea ice - is rapidly melting.
"They hunt for their food out in the Arctic ice," said Irvin. "They raise their young out in the Arctic Sea ice."
Other studies show that polar bears have alarming levels of toxic substances in their bodies.
Those chemicals are mostly used in agriculture. They run off into rivers and then into oceans, where they enter currents that end up in the Arctic eco-system.
"Unfortunately PCV levels have been found quite high in polar bears," said Doug Inkley, a senior scientist with the National Wildlife Federation. "There has been at least seven polar bears in the Norway region that we reported, that had genitalia of both male and female and this may be because of the pollution."
In the past few weeks the U.S. government has acted on several measures affecting the polar bear.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced it will regulate greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to curb global warming.
Then the Interior Department designated almost a half million square kilometers in the Arctic Sea and coastal areas as critical habitat.
Third, the administration decided not to change the polar bear's designation from "threatened" to "endangered." Environmentalists say the administration responded to pressure from lobbyists. The change would have allowed greater protection of polar bears and their environment.
As a result, the oil and gas industries could begin exploring new areas in the Arctic Sea by mid 2011.
"Many people, not just in our industry, but in government, notably the U.S. Geologic Survey, believe there is high potential for significant amounts of oil and natural gas to be found in the U.S. Arctic Continental shelf, meaning below the sea floor," said Richard Ranger, who is senior policy adviser at the American Petroleum Institute which represents the U.S. oil and natural gas industry.
Environmentalists say an oil spill in the Arctic, like the one earlier this year in the Gulf of Mexico, would spell disaster not only for polar bears but for whales, seals and other wildlife.
They say this region, frozen and dark six months of the year, has little or no emergency response equipment.
But Ranger says the oil and gas industries have been operating in the Arctic for over 40 years. He says the industry has collaborated on studies about polar bears to avoid harming them.
"We have drilled safely in that environment over a period of a number of years and believe we can do so to the satisfaction of the government, the satisfaction of the public and for the protection of the environment up there," he said.
But environmentalists say one of the last great places on earth should not be put at risk.
"When polar bears are healthy, it tells us that the environment is healthy," said Robert Irvin. "So when we protect polar bears, we are actually protecting ourselves."
Environmentalists say if the polar bear is not saved, other species will be next to meet the same fate.