searching for polar bears in the federal register

Polar bears have been a hot topic lately, and it’s not just because of Knut, may he rest in peace. Ursus maritimus is one of the species that has come to symbolize the threat of global climate change. In the United States, that means controversy. In 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the historic step of listing the polar bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 because of the likelihood that global warming would lead to shrinking habitats for the species — specifically, less ice. The decision was highly contested and remains so.

One of the most immediate consequences of the ESA listing was the end of a program under which American hunters had been allowed to import trophies of polar bears killed in Canada. Killing polar bears for sport and importing polar bear parts for personal use (e.g., as trophies) had been illegal in the United States since 1972, when the species was protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, an important predecessor of the ESA. (Alaska Natives were still free to kill bears under certain conditions.) In Canada, in contrast, where the majority of the world’s polar bears reside, hunting had been regulated but legal. Amendments to the MMPA in 1994 opened up a loophole allowing American hunters to bring back their prizes. At the time, it was argued that Canada’s polar bear population was large and well-managed, and that license and guide fees would help support arctic communities and polar bear conservation.

The 2008 listing shut the door on trophy imports, including the import of parts from bears who had already been killed by American hunters. Ever since, a variety of hunting advocates such as the Boone and Crockett Club and the National Rifle Association, the State of Alaska, and Alaskan Congressman Don Young have been contesting the decision. It thus seems like an opportune time to revisit the history of federal protections for polar bears in the United States. Fortunately, there’s a new tool that makes it easier than ever before to get at some of the crucial primary sources: namely, all of the material about federal regulatory actions — including information about every single permit issued to an American trophy hunter under the import program — that has been published in the Federal Register since it first went electronic in 1994.

Federal Register 2.0, as it’s called, has a nice web interface for casually browsing or searching, but — even more importantly from the standpoint of open government — it also opens up an Application Programming Interface (API) to anyone who wants to write his or her own app using its data.

I’ve taken advantage of the blissfully simple FR2.0 API to create a tool that automatically grabs all FR items that mention polar bears, displays them in a nicely formatted list, lets you browse forward and backward in time, and links back to the full text on the FR2.0 site. To check out the Polar Bear FedReg Feed in a new tab or window, click here. This is, I hasten to add, experimental and liable to break at any time.1 The app also exposes an RSS feed here.

At this point, it’s more of a proof-of-concept than an actually useful tool, since you can do the same search (and more) using FR2.0‘s own interface. But it’s a start. Eventually it or something like it could offer a much richer functionality that builds on top of what FR2.0 makes available — offering, for example, links to other related content, tools for analysis, mapping, and visualization, or opportunities for annotation and discussion. My suspicion/hope is that this kind of tool will become increasingly important for both scholars and citizens as more and more government data not only goes digital but also goes open.

  1. Some technical details, for anyone who might be curious: the app was written with the Django web application framework, which is based on the Python language. Version control is being managed by git and GitHub. Deployment is through Heroku, using virtualenv and pip to establish the Django environment and South to handle database migrations. The database backend is Postgres. The app builds a local database of polar bear-related FR notices, which is updated every time the page is loaded. []

Author: Etienne

Historian of science, technology, animals, and the environment.