WASHINGTON (CN) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 187,000 square miles of Alaska as critical habitat for the polar bear, including some oil and gas exploration sites.
Though designation includes barrier islands and mainland territory where female bears make maternity dens, about 96 percent of the designation is sea-ice habitat on the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas where polar bears spend most of their life hunting.
Polar bears were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 due to the loss of sea-ice habitat caused by climate change. At that time, the agency deferred designating critical habitat, stating that more time was needed to evaluate the needs of the bears.
In response to the delay, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace filed suit against the agency, which agreed to publish a critical habitat determination by June 2010.
The agency had proposed listing just over 200,000 square miles as critical habitat in October 2009, but the oil and gas industry objected that some of the areas included sites at which extensive exploration and drilling activity were already ongoing. The agency maintains that the reduction in critical habitat between the original proposal and the final determination was the result of more accurate measurements of international borders across sea areas.
Because the designation includes areas at which oil and gas exploration occurs, the drilling now will have to be approved through a consultation process, in which all federal agencies with jurisdiction evaluate its likely impact on the polar bear.