WASHINGTON, DC (November 24, 2010) -- More than 187,000 square miles (approximately 120 million acres) along the north coast of Alaska were designated today as “critical habitat” for the polar bear as a result of a partial settlement in an ongoing lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Greenpeace against the Department of the Interior. This designation under the Endangered Species Act is intended to safeguard those coastal lands and waters under U.S. jurisdiction that are vital to the polar bears’ survival and recovery.
The habitat rule comes at a critical juncture for the polar bear. The Interior Department is under court order to reconsider by Dec. 23 elements of its 2008 decision to list the polar bear as “threatened,” rather than the more protective “endangered” -- a decision that could affect whether the Endangered Species Act can be used as a tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the primary threat to the species. At the same time, the Interior Department is also considering whether to allow oil companies to drill for oil in the polar bear’s newly designated critical habitat in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska.
“The critical habitat designation clearly identifies the areas that need to be protected if the polar bear is to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic,” said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity. “However, unless the Interior Department starts to take seriously its mandate to actually protect the polar bear’s critical habitat, we will be writing the species’ obituary rather than its recovery plan.”
Federal agencies are prohibited from taking any actions that may harm or damage -- the legal term is “adversely modify” -- critical habitat. Species that have critical habitat designated are more than twice as likely to be recovering, and less than half as likely to be declining, as those without it.
“Polar bears are slipping away,” said Andrew Wetzler, Director of NRDC's Land and Wildlife Program. “But we know that there are crucial protections that can keep them around. Today’s designation is a start, especially in warding off ill-considered oil and gas development in America’s most important polar bear habitat.”
In May 2008, the Interior Department 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 being regulated as a result of the listing. A court challenge to this regulation by the Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC 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.”
Scientists have made it clear that polar bears need help soon. Global warming is melting the sea ice the bears depend on to hunt, mate and raise cubs. If current greenhouse gas trends continue, scientists predict two-thirds of the world’s polar bears -- including all the bears in Alaska -- will probably be gone in 40 years and possibly well before then.