Alaska Governor Sean Parnell had an op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post, “Habitat designation won’t help polar bears, but will kill Alaska’s jobs,” that can only be characterized as deeply confused. The basic premise of Governor Parnell’s article is that the federal government shouldn’t designate critical habitat for the polar bear because it won’t help the bear and it will “set aside” parcels of land and sea ice, including “nearly half of Alaska’s oil-producing areas”. He’s wrong on both counts.
First, the designation of critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act does not “set aside” habitat or prohibit that habitat’s use, including for oil development. While designating an area as critical habitat does require additional protections before the federal government (and only the federal government) can take any action to destroy it, major developments can take place on designated critical habitat. That last bit is important. Governor Parnell asserts that everything from “hunting for food” to “construction a septic system” could be effected by the polar bear critical habitat designation, but unless these activities require a permit from the federal government, that’s just not true.
Second, designating critical habitat works. Studies have repeatedly found a positive correlation between the status of a species (whether its population is listed as declining, stable, or growing) and the designation of critical habitat. In short, species that have critical habitat designations are more likely to have stable or growing populations than species that don’t. Polar bears deserve the benefits of these protections no less than any other species, Governor Parnell’s desire for offshore drilling in his state notwithstanding.
I also can’t help but noting that Governor Parnell leads an administration that is currently suing in federal court to strip polar bears of all federal endangered species protections. One of the main arguments Alaska asserts in that case (NRDC is also a party) is, essentially, that climate change models that show polar bear’s sea ice habitat disappearing are bunk--and certainly not robust enough to justify protecting bears under the Endangered Species Act. Yet in his op-ed, Governor Parnell admits that “it is likely that much of the [sea ice] area designated as critical habitat will soon be open water.” That, of course, precisely the problem. And it’s why polar bears, and their habitat, deserve all the help we can give them.