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Feds move to protect critical habitat for polar bears

PHOTO COURTESY U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY — Polar bears roaming the north coast of Alaska are threatened by a rapidly receding ice cap. Spurred by lawsuits, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed designating about 200,000 square miles in the area as critical habitat for the bears. Conservation experts say the proposed habitat is a good step, but the real goal is to stem emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases to slow the pace of the ice melt.

By Bob Berwyn

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has taken a first step to protect polar bears by proposing a critical habitat designation for 200,000 square miles of coastal lands and waters in northern Alaska.

The designation alone won’t save polar bears from the threat of a rapidly melting polar ice cap. The key is halting global warming by regulation greenhouse gas emissions. But the habitat designation would give federal agencies leverage in the global warming battle.

The habitat proposal, required under the Endangered Species Act, came the same week that another Interior Department agency, the Minerals Management Service, approved oil-company plans for exploratory drilling in the polar bear’s habitat in the Beaufort Sea. Interior is considering a similar drilling proposal in the Chukchi Sea.

“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,” said Brendan Cummings, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “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.”

Once habitat is designated as critical, federal agencies are prohibited from taking any actions that may “adversely modify” it.  Although there is a lively debate about how effective critical habitat designations are for protecting endangered species, at least some studies show that species with the designation 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.

“We all know that polar bears are in serious long-term trouble. Today’s 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,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC’s Wildlife Conservation Project. “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 May 2008 the Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. At the same time, Interior issued a special rule exempting greenhouse gas emissions from certain provisions of the Act. In May 2009 new Interior Secretary Ken Salazar reaffirmed this Bush-era exemption for the fossil-fuels industry. A court challenge to this regulation by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace is ongoing.

“Designating polar bear critical habitat is a good first step toward protecting this species,” said Melanie Duchin, a Greenpeace campaigner in Anchorage, Alaska. “However, as long as the secretary of the interior maintains that he can do nothing about greenhouse emissions and global warming, protections for the polar bear will ultimately be ineffective.”

Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Interior has until June 30, 2010 to finalize critical habitat designation for the polar bear.

The settlement agreement also requires Interior to finalize guidelines for the nonlethal deterrence of polar bears deemed to pose a threat to public safety. As the ice retreats further from shore and more polar bears are stranded on land, the number of human-bear interactions is increasing, with numerous bears being shot as a consequence. The guidelines must be finalized by March 31, 2010.

As with the critical habitat designation, the guidelines will be preceded by a proposed rule, along with public comment and public hearings.

Links to all the pertinent documents are compiled together on this page.

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