- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

OSLO (AP) - Northern nations trying to find ways to protect the world’s polar bears in a warming climate resolved Tuesday to hold their talks behind closed doors _ over Norway’s objections.

“The polar bear … has become politically dangerous,” WWF’s Norway chief Rasmus Hansson said as the five nations that have polar bears on their Arctic tundra began political talks in the Norwegian city of Tromsoe.

“Polar bears have become the very symbol of climate change,” he told The Associated Press by telephone from the meeting. Climate change is so touchy for some countries that they balked at public debate on it before December’s climate treaty talks in Copenhagen, he said.

Norway, the United States, Canada, Russia and Denmark, which has polar bears on its Greenland territory, are reviewing for the first time in 28 years their accord on protecting the world’s estimated 20,000-25,000 polar bears. They are to discuss identifying and protecting critical polar bear habitat areas, managing hunting and seeking ways to curb the impact of greenhouse gasses and manmade toxins.

The three-day conference began in the Arctic city with a resolution to hold touchy political talks, about steps governments might agree to take, behind closed doors.

The Norwegian news agency NTB said Norway appeared to be alone in its wish for open meetings. It said at least some of the other countries opposed openness “because the polar bear is such a strongly symbolic animal on the impact of global warming.”

“This is not in keeping with Norwegian political traditions (of openness) or according to my wishes,” Norwegian Environment Minister Erik Solheim told reporters after the decision to close the meetings was announced.

Hunting was the major threat to the bears when the agreement was signed in 1973. But although some indigenous communities still depend on hunts for food and income, experts say stricter hunting rules allowed some polar bear populations to recover.

The big new threat is global warming, which experts say is shrinking the ice-cap that polar bears need to hunt seals, their staple food.

“Climate change has taken over from hunting as the main threat to polar bears,” Solheim said at the meeting’s opening ceremony. “We have to act to protect the ecosystem that polar bears are part of. Global warming has to be stopped if we want to success.”

Norway’s Directorate for Nature Management said 60 percent of the world’s polar bears could be gone by 2050 because global warming melted their habitat. About 1,900-3,600 of the animals are in a population Norway shares with neighboring Russia.

Since the polar bear meeting makes decisions by consensus, without an open vote, it was not immediately known which country or countries demanded closed political talks.

“We wanted the meeting to be wide open for environmental groups, indigenous peoples’ groups and the media. But closing parts of the conference was the only thing that it was possible to get agreement on,” said Solheim.

The other sessions, for the presentation of scientific reports, will be open, but without public debate.



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