Agency OK’s Harm to Polar Bears and Walruses

     WASHINGTON (CN) – As the polar bear and Pacific walrus face the increasing challenge of shrinking Arctic sea ice, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed to authorize the nonlethal, incidental take of small numbers of the animals during gas and oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea and the adjacent western coast of Alaska for five years. The action is in response to a request by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, according to the agency’s proposed rule.
     Polar bears, listed as threatened in 2008 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and granted critical habitat in the United States in 2011, are estimated to number just 20,000 to 25,000 individuals globally. The Pacific walrus is an ESA candidate species, with the listing found to be warranted in 2011, but barred due to higher listing priorities, the proposed rule noted.
     Incidental take regulations, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), can be granted if the agency determines that the taking will have a negligible impact on marine mammals and will not have an “unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of marine mammals for taking for subsistence uses by Alaska Natives,” the proposal said.
     The proposed regulation addresses permissible methods for nonlethal take, measures to ensure that the oil exploration activities will have minimal adverse impacts on the species, their habitats and on the availability for subsistence use, and monitoring and reporting requirements, the agency said.
     Non-lethal take includes disturbances of the marine mammals in their habitat that can disrupt normal behavior patterns such as migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding or sheltering. “Proposed oil and gas exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea Region include the operation of seismic survey vessels, drillships, icebreakers, supply boats, fixed wing aircrafts, and helicopters,” according to the proposal.
     The agency found that the incidental take expected by the exploration would be limited to a small number of individual animals based on seasonal distributions and habitat use patterns in the area in relation to the planned activities. The monitoring requirements and mitigation measures are also expected to reduce interactions with the bears and walruses.
     The Alaska Oil and Gas Association’s members include Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, Apache Corporation, BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., Chevron, Eni Petroleum, ExxonMobil Production Company, Flint Hills Resources Inc., Hilcorp Alaska LLC, Marathon Oil Company, Petro Star Inc., Pioneer Natural Resources Alaska Inc., Repsol, Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc., Statoil, Tesoro Alaska Company, and XTO Energy Inc., according to the rule.
     Comments are requested by Feb. 8.

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