Polar Bears to Receive Habitat Protections

The Obama administration wants to protect 200,000 square miles of Arctic habitat for the threatened polar bear. Will it be enough to save polar bears from the threat of climate change?

10-22-2009 // Aislinn Maestas

Global warming is pushing polar bears toward extinction, melting the ice that polar bears depend on to find food. Government experts predict that the entire U.S. population of polar bears could be gone by 2050. In response, the Interior Department has proposed to designate more than 200,000 square miles of sea ice, barrier islands and land as critical habitat to help the struggling polar bears.

NWF’s John Kostyack praised the decision:

“The Department of Interior continues to demonstrate its commitment to safeguarding wildlife and natural resources from the current and anticipated effects of climate change. Designating critical habitat will give polar bears some much needed relief and a fighting chance for survival."

A safe place to call home

Designating critical habitat is an essential step for safeguarding polar bears. Studies show that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to recover as those without. If approved, the polar bears’ critical habitat would include vast areas of sea and ice that they need for hunting, as well as vital denning grounds for raising young. In addition to helping polar bears, this habitat designation would benefit the many other fish and wildlife species that share the bear’s Arctic habitat, including walrus, seals, beluga whales, gray whales, numerous sea birds and more.

Polar bear 

Protecting polar bears means limiting oil and gas development in their habitat

As noted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “A major Beaufort Sea oil spill would have major effects on polar bears and ringed seals.”  This is because polar bears and oil simply don’t mix.  Spilled oil can kill polar bears if ingested, while oil on a bears coat can reduce its insulating properties, making it harder for the bear to keep warm.  Other reasons why oil and gas development is bad for polar bears:

  • There is currently no proven, effective method for cleaning oil spills on Arctic ice.
  • The extraction and transport associated with oil and gas development in this area would disturb the habitats that polar bears need to raise their young.
  • Once extracted, the burning of these fossil fuels will contribute more global warming pollution into the atmosphere, exacerbating the threat of climate change to the bears’ melting habitat.

Kostyack stressed that the Obama administration should err on the side of caution when it considers opening this area to oil and gas development.

“Because a critical habitat designation under the Endangered Species Act cannot remove the biggest threat to polar bears – global warming pollution – we must do everything we can to reduce the other stressors, particularly oil and gas development activity in their habitat. Doing anything less ignores our obligation to future generations to be good stewards of the planet.” 

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