A vast swath of icy sea, barrier islands and coastal land on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope will be granted special protection because of its importance to the threatened polar bear, under a proposal released this week by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agency proposes that 518,000 sq km of coastline and shallow Arctic Ocean waters be designated as critical habitat, a status of heightened protection afforded under the Endangered Species Act.
The area, which would be the largest ever designated for an Endangered Species Act-listed population, overlaps the territory with the largest existing oil fields in the United States where companies operate and plan to explore more.
The Bush administration last year declared polar bears “threatened,” or likely to become endangered. The May 2008 order by then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne cited the bear’s need for sea ice, the dramatic loss of such ice in recent decades due to global warming and computer models that suggest sea ice is likely to recede further.
Environmental groups hailed the habitat announcement, but noted that it came in the same week that the Interior Department approved a plan by a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell to drill exploratory wells on two leases in the Beaufort Sea off Alaska’s north coast.
Tom Strickland, an assistant Interior secretary , said that the critical-habitat designation should not hinder further development if operations are responsible and careful.
Oil companies are already subject to rules for protecting polar bears imposed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and under other aspects of the Endangered Species Act.
Included in the designation are areas where polar bears establish their dens, give birth and nurse their cubs and forage for food, officials said. Over 90 percent of the habitat is water that is often covered by sea ice.
The plan is subject to a 60-day public review before it becomes final.
“The maps all (reflect) what scientists say polar bear critical habitat in the US should be,” said Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that sued to gain protections for polar bears. But Cummings and other environmentalists said the Department of Interior must stop the spread of oil development in new Arctic territory to make the critical-habitat designation meaningful.
State promises fight
Alaska state officials, however, are fighting the listing itself and the regulations it entails.
“Some are attempting to use the Endangered Species Act as a way to shut down resource development. I’m not going to let that happen on my watch,” Governor Sean Parnell told a news conference, echoing the stance of his predecessor, Sarah Palin.
The state has sued to overturn the listing, arguing that polar bear populations are robust and unaffected by sea-ice changes.