Polar Bears Win 120 Million Acres of Alaska

polar bears
Photo courtesy USFWS

By MarEx 2016-03-03 19:22:07

A U.S. federal appeals court has upheld the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of more than 120 million acres as critical habitat in Arctic Alaska for endangered polar bears. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling reverses a 2013 lower court decision that shot down the habitat designation.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association, several Alaska Native corporations and villages and the state of Alaska had challenged the Interior Department’s 2010 critical habitat designation — which amounts to some 187,000 square miles of sea ice, barrier islands and coastal areas in Alaska. The plaintiffs complained that the protections for polar bear habitat will be an impediment to oil drilling in the Arctic. The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from authorizing activities that will destroy or harm a listed species’ critical habitat.

This latest decision offers polar bears the full protection of critical habit they truly need, according to three environmental groups (the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Greenpeace) that intervened in the case to defend the habitat designation against challenges from oil companies and the state of Alaska.

Without help, scientists predict, more than two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, including all the bears in Alaska, will be gone by 2050. Arctic sea ice, which polar bears depend on for hunting and raising their cubs, hit a new record low this January.

“This is a critical victory for polar bears at a time when there’s huge momentum on fighting climate change,” said Kassie Siegel, a Center attorney who filed the original legal petition that gained Endangered Species Act protection for the bear. 

“The ruling strengthens the Endangered Species Act and affirms the commonsense idea that you can’t protect imperiled animals without protecting the places they live. This decision gives polar bears some breathing room, but President Obama and other leaders still have to move fast to leave dirty fossil fuels in the ground to provide this species and so many others a true shot at survival.”

Despite protecting great swaths of the Arctic Ocean as polar bear habitat, the Department of the Interior has moved forward with plans to allow oil companies to drill in that habitat.

Royal Dutch Shell announced last year that it was ending its Arctic offshore oil exploration “for the foreseeable future,” but the Obama administration still plans to offer lease sales in sensitive waters off Alaska. 

“Polar bears are a keystone species of climate change impacts and we are glad to see the court recognize that the federal government was acting appropriately to protect them,” said Greenpeace Arctic campaign specialist John Deans. “However, this important species will only truly be protected if it means that these sensitive areas will be properly safeguarded from oil and gas development and coupled with strong policies to combat climate change.”

Critical habitat designation does not impact subsistence activities by Alaska Native communities.

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) are scattered throughout the ice-covered waters of the Arctic Circle. Two relatively distinct polar bear populations occur within the United States: the southern Beaufort Sea population, which extends into Canada, and the Chukchi-Bering Seas population, which extends into Russia.

The bears spend the majority of their lives on sea ice, which provides a platform for essential life functions such as hunting, seasonal movements, resting, and mating. Female polar bears, however, particularly on Alaska’s northern coast, will come ashore to den and to acclimate their cubs before returning to the sea ice.

Because of global climate change, the extent and quality of Arctic sea ice is declining, and the polar bear population is declining with it. On May 15, 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the ESA. FWS highlighted concerns over climate change and discussed the major negative impacts that declines in sea ice would have on the species, including nutritional stress caused by diminished numbers of ice-dependent prey, decreased access to the prey that remain, shorter hunting seasons and longer periods of fasting onshore, higher energetic demands for travel and obtaining food and more negative interactions with humans.

The court document is available here.