A group of Canadian officials traveled to Washington this week to make an unusual plea: They asked the United States to allow the import of polar bear hides, which became illegal when the animal was declared "threatened" by the U.S. Deparment of the Interior on May 14.
The request is being made on behalf of at least four Inuit communities in the Arctic region of Canada, whose economy depends on the lucrative polar bear hunting season.
If American hunters are not allowed to bring back the pelts of bears they kill, Canadian officials fear they will stop coming to the country to hunt the bruins.
"We want to express our concern about interests that were interfering with our natural resources," said Bob McLeod, minister of industry, tourism and investment for the Northwest Territories, who is on the team currently in Washington. "This will virtually wipe out hunting in the Northwest Territories."
Since American hunters account for an estimated 60 to 75 percent of polar bear hunters in northern Canada, it is believed that more than 85 people will lose their jobs, and far more will feel the ripple effect caused by the loss of this $1.6 million industry, McLeod said.
The decision to place polar bears under the protection of the Endangered Species Act came in response to the continued "loss of sea ice," the bear's natural habitat, that would put them "at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future," according to a statement by the Department of the Interior on May 14.
There is no mention that the danger to polar bears stems from hunting.
In the same statement, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne specifically noted that "limiting the unintended harm to the society and economy of the United States" was a concern.
What did not seem to be a priority, however, was the harm to the economy in Arctic Canada, home to about two-thirds of the world's polar bear population, which is estimated at 20,000 to 25,000.
"In our view, sports hunting has no effect on the polar bear population," McLeod said. "Most of the population is well managed. The sport is very closely monitored and sustainable."
In the Northwest Territories, 40 polar bear hunting licenses are given out each year for the two-month season, each with a limit of a single bear.
"We were sort of the unintended consequence," McLeod told ABC News. "It wasn't [the Department of the Interior's] intention to wipe out our sports hunting industry."
McLeod, along with other Canadian officials, plans to ask U.S. officials to propose an amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act -- under the Endangered Species Act -- that would allow the import of polar bear hides and restore the hunting industry.
"It would take a legislative action or change in the law to make that happen," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Valerie Fellows told ABC News.
There are currently no exceptions to the restrictions to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but McLeod said he is confident one could be made before the next polar bear season begins in late spring 2009.
Defending Bears From the Real Danger
The Fish and Wildlife Service recommended that polar bears be classified as "threatened" earlier this year after collecting information on the predicted effects of climate change on the bear's habitat.
"We based our decision on changes that we expect to see in the next 40 years," Fellows said. "It was directly related to the loss of sea ice, which the polar bears use, not only as platforms for hunting, but for mating."
A report by the FWS predicted that, by the mid 2050s, the overall area of "optimal polar bear habitat" would be reduced to nearly half its current size.
With this in mind, another objective of the Canadian delegation in Washington is to encourage support for a pipeline that would bring the Arctic's natural gas to the United States. The easy flow of natural gas would allow clean-burning gas power plants to be built, replacing coal-burning plants that produce greenhouse gases, McLeod said.
"We can protect the polar bears through climate change," he said. "We have to start taking action."
What that action will be is uncertain, though. The FWS has not even started examining what should be done to reduce the environmental threat to the bears.
"We plan on creating a team of professionals to be the recovery team," Fellows said. "This recovery team will work to identify causes of the climb in the threat facing the polar bear. We're in the very beginning steps of identifying the people that can help."
For some critics, it seems the precarious situation of the polar bear has not changed, even with the the decision to list them as threatened.
"It's so incredible," Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, a nonprofit group that works to protect the state's public wilderness lands, said of the decision to classify polar bears as threatened. "The polar bear hasn't been helped at all. The only people that are suffering are the native Canadians.
"It's kind of a joke," she added. "It's a big, fat nothing-burger."
Kristina Johnson, a spokeswoman with the Sierra Club, said that everything possible needs to be done to protect polar bears from extinction.
"If we allow global warming and oil drilling to destroy polar bear habitat, we'll lose the opportunity to hunt them, or photograph them, or see them in the wild -- forever," Johnson said. "Polar bears are in grave danger. The goal of listing them is to ensure that they don't disappear altogether. That's what we need to focus on right now."