The Obama administration is setting aside more than 187,000 square miles (120 million acres) along the northern coast of Alaska designating it as a “critical habitat” for polar bears as a result of a partial settlement in an ongoing lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace against the Department of Interior.
The total, which includes large areas of sea ice off the Alaskan coast, is about 13,000 square miles less than in a preliminary plan released last year.
Tom Strickland, Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said the designated area would help polar bears stave off extinction, recognizing that the greatest threat is the melting sea ice caused by ever-worsening climate change.
“This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations,” Strickland told AFP. “We will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species.”
The designation does not in itself block economic activity or other development, but does require federal officials to consider whether a proposed action would adversely affect the polar bear’s habitat and interfere with its recovery.
Nearly 95 percent of the designated area is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the northern coast of Alaska, where polar bears spend most of their time hunting for food, breeding and traveling.
Alaska’s Governor Sean Parnell, along with the state’s oil and gas industry, complained that the plan released last year was too large and dramatically underestimated the potential economic impact. The designation could lead to hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic revenue, they said.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service said the reductions in designated habitat were mostly due to corrections that more accurately reflect the US border in the Arctic Ocean.
The Interior Department has declared that polar bears are threatened and likely to become endangered, largely in part to a dramatic loss of sea ice that is important to the survival of polar bears. Officials face a December 23 deadline to explain why the bears are listed as threatened instead of a more protective “endangered” status.
Kassie Siegel, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that filed the lawsuit to increase protections for the polar bear, hailed the designation of critical habitat.
“Now we need the Obama administration to actually make it mean something so we can write the bear’s recovery plan — not its obituary,” Siegel told The Associated Press.
Siegel called for the administration to impose a ban on oil and gas drilling in polar bear habitat areas. “An oil spill there would be a catastrophe,” she said.
The US government is considering opening the Chukchi Sea to drilling but is reviewing leases awarded in 2008 after a lawsuit was filed by indigenous people and environmental groups that contended that the government does not have enough knowledge about how drilling would impact the environment.
Oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell want to begin drilling in the upcoming months, once winter ice begins to break up, and are submitting plans to show they can meet tougher government rules and regulations.
The US Geological Survey said in 2008 that within the Arctic circle there are 90 billion barrels of oil and vast quantities of natural gas waiting to be tapped, most of it offshore.
The Interior Department listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008, and issued a special rule exempting greenhouse gas emissions from being regulated as a result of the listing. The Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC and Greenpeace continue to challenge the regulation in court.
“Designating polar bear critical habitat is a good first step toward protecting this species,” said Melanie Duchin, a Greenpeace campaigner in Alaska. “However, as long as the secretary of the interior maintains that he can do nothing about greenhouse emissions and global warming, protections for the polar bear will ultimately be ineffective.”
Scientists have made it clear that polar bears need help soon. Global warming is continuing to reduce the sea ice that polar bears depend on to hunt, mate and raise cubs. If current greenhouse gas trends continue, scientists predict more than 30 percent of the world’s polar bears — including all the polar bears in Alaska — will probably be gone in as little as 40 years.
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