Department of Interior Designates Critical Polar Bear Habitat

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

The Department of Interior today released the areas designated as critical habitat for polar bears.

It’s a vast 187,000 mile designation along Alaska’s northern coast. Rosa Mehan is the Alaska division chief for Marine Mammal management for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Mehan says because polar bears are managed under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act there are protections in place that impact industry. The habitat designation will not however, change or enhance that.

Mehan acknowledges that sea ice loss is the major driver of the need for protections to help save polar bears and that loss is due to a warming climate impacted by fossil fuel emissions, but she says the ESA is not an effective method for addressing greenhouse gas. The Interior department used something called the 4-D rule when they listed the bears in 2008. It exempts greenhouse gas emissions from being regulated under the ESA.

Brendan Cummings is with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that sued to trigger the habitat designation. He says the designated habitat areas are very good but he says addressing climate change is going to require all available regulatory tools.

Fish and Wildlife’s Mehan says her agency is focused on what they can do right now. Working to minimize further adverse affects on polar bears so at least some will survive and hopefully she says, re-populate areas that have habitat protections if measures to stop sea ice loss are effective. She says within a few decades, the only refuge for polar bears may be the Canadian Archipelagos where sea ice is stable. She acknowledges the current situation is grim.

Brendan Cummings says species with critical habitat designations are twice as likely to increase in numbers. But he says for the designation to work, the department of interior and other federal agencies need to take the protection mandate seriously.

North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta released a statement today expressing concern that the designation could impact subsistence hunting and routine oil and gas development on the North Slope.

Barrow and Kaktovik are exempt from the critical habitat designation rules as are five Air force radar facilities, but Itta worries that the designation could still stop a new runway from being built in Kaktovik.

Another element of the lawsuit that will be heard in December is the ESA listing itself.  DC judge Emmett Sullivan wants more clarity from the department of Interior as to how they decide what species get a threatened designation or the more protective endangered listing. Those documents are due to the court on Dec. 23. Arguments about whether the bears should be listed as threatened, endangered or not listed at all, will be heard in February. Arguments on the 4-D rule exempting greenhouse gases from ESA regulation will be heard in April.

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