October 23, 2009

Critical Habitat For Alaskan Polar Bears Designated

President Obama designated more than 200,000 square miles in Alaska and off its coast as "critical habitat" for polar bears on Thursday, an action that could add restrictions to future offshore drilling for oil and gas, The Associated Press reported.

Under federal law, agencies are restricted from taking actions that may adversely affect critical habitat and interfere with polar bear recovery.

"It is a step in the right direction to help polar bears stave off extinction, while recognizing that the greatest threat to the bear is the melting of Arctic sea ice caused by climate change," said assistant Interior Secretary Tom Strickland.

Strickland said they would continue to work to protect the polar bear and its fragile environment as they move forward with a comprehensive energy and climate strategy.

The critical habitat designation would cover about half of the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest coast.

At least 93 percent of the area proposed for the polar bear is sea ice, with the remaining 7 percent made up of barrier islands or land-based dens of snow and ice.

Having the area listed as a critical habitat would make consideration of the effect on polar bears and their habitat an explicit part of any government-approved activity.

There will also be a 60-day public comment period, with a final rule expected next year. Under terms of a settlement agreement between the government and three environmental groups, Interior faces a June 30 deadline for critical habitat designation.

The state of Alaska filed a new complaint yesterday in its effort to overturn the listing of the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Last year, former Gov. Sarah Palin claimed that Interior did not respond to the state's concerns in a timely manner before listing the polar bears as threatened. The listing could cripple offshore oil and gas development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, which provide prime habitat for the polar bears, state officials said.

Palin's successor, Gov. Sean Parnell, said the Endangered Species Act was being used as a way to shut down resource development along Alaska's northern coast "“ something he said he would not let happen.

According to many environmental groups, federal regulators routinely grant permits for petroleum exploration without adequately considering consequences for whales, polar bears, walrus and other marine mammals. These groups argue that the boats, drilling platforms and aircraft will add to bears' stress by causing them to flee and expend more energy.

Meanwhile, oil companies have not demonstrated they can clean up an oil spill in broken ice, according to many Conservation groups, who argue that cleanup efforts off Alaska's coast could be slowed by extreme cold, moving ice, high wind and low visibility.

"Designation of critical habitat is a powerful tool to protect threatened species, but more must be done to save the polar bear from extinction," said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council.