More than 187,000 Square Miles of Critical Habitat Set Aside for Alaska’s Polar Bears

Yet bears remain at risk from oil and gas development, climate change

11-30-2010 // Aislinn Maestas
Polar bears on ice

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week designated more than 187,000 square miles of critical habitat for Alaska’s polar bears, which are listed as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act.

“Designation of critical habitat for polar bears is essential for their protection,” said Doug Inkley, NWF Senior Scientist. “And unless Congress enacts legislation to quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the future looks bleak.

Polar bears were put on the Endangered Species Act list in 2008 due to projected loss of sea ice habitat caused by climate change. Sea ice is declining at a dramatic pace, melting faster than previously projected. This year, Arctic sea ice extent was the third lowest in the 30 years of satellite observations.

According to Inkley, these trends in Arctic sea ice are particularly alarming for polar bears. “Polar bears need Arctic sea ice habitat to survive. Without sea ice, polar bears are unable to hunt for their primary prey – seals. Most of the year polar bears are on sea ice, where they also seek mates and breed.”

In addition to the growing threat of climate change, National Wildlife Federation is concerned over plans to open up areas of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas to oil and gas development. Oil extraction is even more challenging at sea than on land and a large spill within the critical habitat area could be devastating to Alaska’s polar bears.

“The continuation of oil and gas development in critical habitat is double trouble for polar bears,” said Inkley. “It not only puts polar bears at risk from large oil spills like the recent Gulf oil spill disaster, but it also accelerates global warming and sea ice melt when the fuel is used, releasing more carbon dioxide.”

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