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By Barbara Kessler

While Americans nestle in their homes this holiday break, environmentalists will be watching and waiting for a thumbs up or down on the status of the polar bear, whose predicted foreshortened future holds little to celebrate.

The Bush Administration, under court order to make a decision after the National Resources Defense Council and others sued on the bears’ behalf, has proposed designating the arctic animals as “threatened” and is expected to announce its decision before the deadline of Jan. 9, 2008.

But environmentalists are worried that the government either won’t grant the protected status, will ask for an extension or will fail to designate that the bear needs “critical habitat,” i.e., arctic ice, to survive (because that would require taking action against global warming). They further fear that the administration will make their potentially unpopular pronouncement while Americans are distracted by the holidays.

Trying to avert that scenario, the National Resource Defense Council has launched another in its series of Polar Bear SOS‘s asking for contributions to help it keep the issue before the public. The public can also send an individual letter supporting polar bears to Secretary Dirk Kempthorne of the Department of the Interior on the NRDC website.

The NRDC and other environmental groups want the polar bear declared to be threatened (they’d prefer “endangered” status) because the loss of its arctic habitat combined with hunting is accelerating the bears’ decline in the wild. Some 22,000 bears remain, but their habitat is literally “melting,” putting it on a trajectory for extinction in the next generation, said Serena Ingre, NRDC press secretary for state outreach.

The iconic animal’s survival is so closely tied to global warming because rising global temperatures have reduced the polar ice cap by 40 percent over the last 30 years, stripping the polar bear of range, Ms. Ingre said. Further, warmer seas around the North Pole have diminished the sea ice that the polar bear depends upon for hunting.

See a poignant video of the polar bear at You Tube.