Double Trouble for Polar Bears

New report illustrates compound threat of melting Arctic sea ice and offshore oil development in proposed polar bear critical habitat

12-16-2009 // Aislinn Maestas
Polar bear

The combination of near-record Arctic sea-ice loss and continued development of oil and gas in proposed polar bear critical habitat spells double trouble for Alaska’s polar bears, according to a new report issued by the National Wildlife Federation and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Mapping out recently proposed polar bear critical habitat relative to approved offshore oil development and recent trends in sea-ice decline, Double Trouble: Melting Arctic Sea Ice and Offshore Oil Development highlights the multiple threats facing polar bears in Alaska.

“The Department of Interior is undermining its own efforts to protect polar bears by promoting oil and gas development in some of the same areas it proposes to designate as critical habitat,” said Dr. Doug Inkley, senior scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. “If ever there was a case for erring on the side of caution this is it. Instead, DOI is recklessly moving forward, handing out permits such as the one earlier this month allowing Shell Oil to drill in Alaska's Chukchi Sea as early as next summer.”

“We just witnessed one of the North Slope's largest oil spills in its history,” said Pam Miller, Arctic program director for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center. “Oil extraction is even more challenging at sea than on land, where an average of 453 oil and other toxic spills per year occurred between 1996 and 2008 on the North Slope oil fields.”

In addition to the threat of oil and gas development, global warming continues to cause declines in the sea ice that polar bears need to survive, including within the area proposed as polar bear critical habitat. According to the report, sea-ice extent during in October and November, 2009 was the third lowest on record, at 19 percent and 9 percent below the long-term average, respectively.

“The sea ice is melting faster than previously projected,” said Dr. Amanda Staudt, climate scientist at the National Wildlife Federation. “For the first time this year, commercial cargo ships were able to traverse the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage saw its first commercial use in 2008. Some scientists now say that the Arctic could be free of sea ice in late summer by as early as 2012.”

Furthermore, thicker, more stable multi-year sea ice was at an all-time low, having been replaced by thinner annual sea ice less able to support polar bears.

“These trends in Arctic sea ice are particularly alarming for mother polar bears and their newborn young,” said Dr. Sterling Miller, senior wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation. “The decline in multi-year sea ice means fewer suitable areas of denning and foraging habitat for polar bears. The reported drowning of polar bears is a disturbing sign of the increasingly long distance between their sea ice habitat and denning habitat on land.”

The report lays out several steps to give polar bears a fighting chance:

  • Expand the area proposed for polar bear critical habitat to include the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Beaufort Sea from Alaska’s Northern coast out to 200 miles.
     
  • Provide strict oversight as required by the Endangered Species Act of oil and gas development and other proposed disturbances in critical habitat, for the polar bear.
     
  • Pass comprehensive clean energy and climate change legislation to reduce global warming pollution, promote alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels and invest in strategies to help safeguard wildlife threatened by climate change.
     

“The plight of the polar bear highlights the plight of our planet,” said Inkley. “The news coming out of the Arctic increases the urgency for world leaders gathered in Copenhagen to agree on a plan to reduce the pollution that threatens wildlife and our own future.”

 

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