Polar Bear Population Shrinks: Symptom of Global Warming?

For many, the polar bear has become a living symbol of the dangers of global warming. The powerful kings of the Arctic are finding their habitat shrinking.

On Monday, environmental activists, hunters and oil industry representatives spoke at a public hearing on whether the U.S. government should list polar bears as a threatened species.

Climate change is melting the icy terrain polar bears need to hunt. According to some, that's putting their future at risk.

"The habitat of the polar bear is literally melting away under its feet," said John Kostyack of the National Wildlife Federation.

Eskimos once considered the bears wise and powerful, dubbing them the "great lonely roamers." Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is studying whether the 25,000 remaining bears are in danger of disappearing.

"We're trying to find out if anyone knows more than we do right now on how fast the ice is melting and how much is melting and about the relationship between polar bears and ice," said Dale Hal, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Not everyone agrees that the bears should be protected: Hunters, oil interests and even the state of Alaska have questions.

But for many others, the bears are a symbol of a bigger crisis threatening the planet.

"We are trying to light a fire under the federal government to take action that everyone now knows is necessary," Kostyack said.

A final decision on the polar bear is expected next January. If the bear does get put on the threatened species list, it could mean tighter federal restrictions on oil and gas exploration and climate-changing pollution.