The Interior Department may act as soon as this week on its year-old proposal to make the polar bear the first species to be listed as threatened with extinction because of melting ice due to a warming planet.
"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," said Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. "And then there is the polar bear."
Even Frank Luntz, the political consultant who advised President Bush six years ago to focus on discrediting the science of global warming and refer to it as "climate change," has recognized the bear's potency. In an interview on the environmental website Grist.org, he said the public has a "soft side" for the bear.
Federal government scientists have presented increasingly compelling evidence that the top predator at the top of the world is doomed if the polar regions get warmer and sea ice continues to melt as forecast.
Two-thirds of the population could be gone by mid-century if current trends continue, experts say. Bears are beholden to sea ice, where they perch so they can pounce on unsuspecting seals, their primary food.
Images pop up regularly of scrawny, exhausted bears dragging themselves onto ice floes looking like bones covered in sodden white rugs. So do reports of struggling bears swimming wearily in open water. It's a shocking contrast to the pop-culture image: smiling animated bears guzzling Coca-Cola in commercials, fat lounging bears drawing crowds at zoos or fluffy Polyester stand-ins adorning children's bedrooms.
"These are soft and cuddly, giving bears," said Anthony Leiserowitz, a public opinion researcher and director of the Yale Project on Climate Change. "We give them to each other on Valentine's Day and tuck them in with our children at night."
All this humanizing of the ferocious carnivore makes conservationists believe they have found the charismatic mega-fauna needed to transform the issue of global warming from a distant abstraction into something real, accessible and urgent.
The script calls for the big white bear to play a role similar to that of the American bald eagle in the 1970s, which was at center stage in the nascent environmental movement to tighten pesticide regulations and ban the insecticide DDT.
Conservationists hope the bear will focus the nation on curtailing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for melting ice and other symptoms of a warming planet. They are eager to press this case in court; oil and gas industries and their allies fear it.
Heavy industry has reason to fear. At least one part of the environmental community believes the bear's listing would provide the leverage to stop a coal-fired power plant thousands of miles away from the Arctic.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who is known for his skepticism about global-warming measures, asked U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director H. Dale Hall last week whether listing the polar bear could be used to halt the construction of a new power plant in Oklahoma City.
"The Endangered Species Act is not the vehicle to reach out and demand all of the things that need to happen to address climate change," Hall said, to Inhofe's apparent satisfaction.
Andrew E. Wetzler, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's endangered species project, said Hall misunderstands the legal principles underlying the act, which was fortified by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that carbon dioxide can be regulated as a pollutant.
If the builders of a coal-fired plant needed a federal permit, they would probably have to show how its emissions would not erode the polar bear's habitat or jeopardize its survival, Wetzler said.
Several conservation groups have filed a lawsuit and threatened a second one to force the listing of the bear. Already, they have sued to nullify oil exploration leases in the Chukchi Sea, set for sale Wednesday, arguing that the bear's plight got short shrift during environmental reviews.