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Polar Bear Habitat in Alaska Protected

May Limit Oil and Gas Drilling

A large segment of Alaska’s sea ice, islands, and coastline that is considered important to polar bears is now designated as critical habitat. As a result of the designation, federally regulated activities – such as oil and gas drilling – that may have an adverse affect on polar bears and others species will get an extra level of review by the government.

The designation of 484,000 square kilometers of land comes at a time when Shell has been lobbying the Obama administration to approve its plans to drill in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea – a region that is home to one of the nation’s largest polar bear populations.

“This will not do all that is necessary to protect the bears, but it is part of the solution,” said WWF polar bear specialist Geoff York. “It would be good to see other polar bear range states take similar action.”

The Designation

The November 24, 2010 decision by the U.S. Interior Department stipulates that, if a federal action may affect the polar bear or its critical habitat, the permitting or action agency must enter into consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Consultation is a process through which federal agencies and the service jointly work to identify potential impacts on listed species and their habitats, and identify ways to implement these actions consistent with species conservation.

This is in line with Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act, which requires federal agencies to ensure that the activities they authorize, fund or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the species or to destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat. 

“As some of the habitat now designated is in areas of interest to oil and gas companies, it will be interesting to see how well this consultation process works,” York said. “We know that a chance of a blowout will always exist, and we know that current management processes, technology, and response capacity fall short of being able to effectively contain a spill in Arctic waters.”

More to be Done

The designation of the habitat does not address the largest threat to the species: climate change.

“We urge the U.S. and all polar bear range states to incorporate climate change scenarios into their long term planning,” York said. “The Arctic is changing fast and we need to look ahead and make sure polar bears and other sea ice dependent species have a place of refuge as the sea ice, their most important habitat, melts away.”