Today brought some much needed good news for Alaska’s polar bears. In response to a lawsuit brought by NRDC, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Greenpeace, the Obama Administration finalized the designation of 187,000 square miles of “critical habitat” for the polar bear.
As I wrote when these protections were first proposed, protecting polar bear habitat, the offshore sea ice that bears rely on to find food and mates and the onshore areas where they rest and raise their young, is vital to conserving these magnificent creatures. Most importantly, in this case, is the role that today’s designation may play in protecting polar bears from the ongoing threat of oil development and toxic contaminants, both increasing threats to the species as global warming takes its toll.
One of the more interesting bits of data released with today’s announcement was a map, reproduced below, that shows the observed changes in optimal polar bear habitat over the last twenty years. Red areas show a decrease in habitat, blue areas an increase. The profound shift in habitat availability around Alaska can easily be seen, making today’s designation all the more important.
The designation does have its limitations, however. Among other things, it could have done more to protect offshore sea ice habitat, but overall it’s a good step forward for polar bear conservation here in the United States.