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Andrew Wetzler

Andrew Wetzler

Posted: October 22, 2009 03:12 PM

In An Important Step, U.S. Designates Polar Bear Critical Habitat

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It’s been a good couple of weeks for polar bears.  First, the Department of the Interior announced that it would propose tighter international regulations of polar bear trophy hunting and trade under international law and, today, the Department of the Interior unveiled a proposal to designate 200,000 square miles of “critical habitat” for the polar bear in Alaska.

According to Thom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife, who announced the designation at a press conference today, about 93% of the area designated is composed of offshore sea ice.  He also said that, if approved, the proposal would be the largest designation of critical habitat in the history of the Endangered Species Act.

The Endangered Species Act requires the designation of critical habitat (defined as those areas essential to a species’ conservation) for all species listed as threatened or endangered.  Once designated, the federal government is prohibited from taking any action that could “adversely modify” that habitat.  While lawyers have argued endlessly over what, exactly, that phrase means, I think its fair to say that its considered one of the more protective standards the Endangered Species Act has to offer.  Indeed, species that have designated critical habitat have been found to be more than twice as likely to be recovering, and less than half as likely to be declining, as those without it.

The implications of a good critical habitat designation in Alaska are profound.  As a glance at the map below shows, just protecting known polar bear denning locations in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, could greatly influence oil and gas exploration and drilling there. 

Polar bear den sites in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from 1981 to 2001 (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The really cool (and valuable) thing about the Endangered Species Act’s critical habitat provisions, though, is that they don’t just protect the bears themselves, but the places those bears need—which includes not only occupied habitat, but essential unoccupied habitat as well.  Thus, if you were to look not just at known den cites, but suitable denning habitat in the Refuge, you would get a map that looks more like this:

Map showing potential polar bear  denning habitat in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge - USGS (based on Durner, G.M., S.C. Amstrup, and K.J. Ambrosius. 2006. Polar bear maternal den habitat in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Arctic 59(1): 31-36 (March 2006). )

Nor is it only denning habitat that should be protected.  Other habitat (such as offshore sea ice) that supports essential polar bear life functions needs to be designated as well.  That’s particularly important to keep in mind because, just this week another federal agency, the Minerals Management Service, approved plans for exploratory oil drilling in the polar bear’s offshore habitat in the Beaufort Sea and is considering a similar drilling proposal in the Chukchi Sea. 

On top of that, impacts beyond oil and gas developments, including things like toxic contamination, are also subject to the Endangered Species Act’s critical habitat provisions.

It’s often easy to feel hopeless about the plight of the polar bear--and, it’s true, that if we don't do something about climate change, the bear’s in deep, deep trouble--but today’s announcement is a hopeful reminder that there are still lots of ways we can help the bear and that U.S. law contains many mechanisms that give polar bears a fighting chance.

UPDATE:  The full proposed rule is now available here

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.