A long-awaited announcement concerning polar bears was made last week. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service will propose designation of more than 200,000 square miles along the north coast of Alaska as polar bear critical habitat. It has until June 30, 2010 to finalize the critical habitat designation.
The move is pursuant to a lawsuit settlement to address claims of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace. Setting aside habitat for polar bears is required under the Endangered Species Act.
Apparently, however, the right hand of the federal government doesn’t have a clue as to what its left hand is doing. The Minerals Management Service (another Interior Department, like the Fish and Wildlife Service) also approved plans for exploratory drilling for oil in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea, while a similar proposal is being considered for the Chuckchi Sea.
These developments beg the question: what good is setting aside habitat for the polar bear, if we are just going to allow polluting, disrupting activities like oil drilling?
When habitat for endangered or threatened species is designated, the federal government is prohibited from taking actions that may “adversely modify” it. Brendan Cummings, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, commented on the situation last week:
“If polar bears are to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic, we need to protect their critical habitat, not turn it into a polluted industrial zone. The Interior Department is schizophrenic, declaring its intent to protect polar bear habitat in the Arctic, yet simultaneously sacrificing that habitat to feed our unsustainable addiction to oil.”
Drilling for oil in the midst of critical habitat for the polar bears appears to be a clear case of an activity that would “adversely modify” the bears’ home and hunting grounds.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the tension between protecting the polar bears and protecting big oil interests is ongoing. In May 2008, the polar bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. Yet, the Department of Interior also issued a special rule exempting greenhouse gas emissions from certain provisions of the ESA (a separate lawsuit challenging the legality of the exemption is pending).
Designating critical habitat for the polar bears is definitely necessary in order to help the long-term survival of the species. However, it is but one piece of the conservation puzzle.
Observed Andrew Wetzler, director of National Resource Defense Council’s Wildlife Conservation Project:
“We all know that polar bears are in serious long-term trouble. [The] designation of critical habitat is an essential step toward saving this increasingly imperiled species. But we have to do much more if we are to save the polar bear from extinction. Controlling greenhouse gas emissions, reducing commercial hunting in Canada and stemming the tide of toxic chemicals in their habitat are all necessary to ensure this magnificent animal’s future.”
In other words, while setting aside habitat for the polar bears is necessary, positive effects of doing so may be undermined by the government’s failure to more strictly limit CO2 emissions and its approval of Arctic drilling where polar bears hunt.
With new habitat protections, as well as federal guidelines that require nonlethal deterrence of polar bears that post a threat to public safety, the question remains – can we do more? Without addressing the cause of the threatened species status of the polar bears… the shrinking Arctic Ice that is most likely due to global climate change, we could all be on thin ice.