120 Million Acres of Alaska Coast Declared Critical Polar Bear Habitat


Photo: flickrfavorites via Flickr/CC BY

In Alaska, over 187,000 square miles (120 million acres) have been designated 'critical polar bear habitat' under the Endangered Species Act. The designation resulted as part of a settlement in an ongoing lawsuit brought against the US Department of the Interior by some of the most powerful conservation groups in the country. The lawsuit aims to protect the polar bear by having it listed as 'endangered' as opposed to 'threatened'. Here's what the news means for polar bears:

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.

That's a wire from the NRDC, one of the groups -- along with Greenpeace and the Center for Biological Diversity -- responsible for landing the designation.

The truth is, that while it's good news that the critical habitat has been declared, the move will likely have little practical effect on polar bears. That critical habitat is slowly melting, and cordoning it off and considering it 'protected' won't do much to solve the problem -- only working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slowing the onset of climate change will.

But the idea of trying to use the Endangered Species Act to put emissions regulations on US industry has always seemed far-fetched to me -- as legitimate a threat climate change is to polar bears, it seems unlikely that we'll ever generate enough political will to enact regs on carbon on those grounds. Not that we shouldn't try -- kudos to the NRDC and co. for their good work in drawing attention to the issue, and landing the polar bears a stretch of protected habitat. After all, as the NRDC notes, "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."

More on the Polar Bear and Global Climate Change
Melting Ice Increasing the Chance of Polar Bear -Human Meet-Ups
Polar Bears Could Shut Down Coal Plants and Halt New Home Development
Vladimir Putin Hearts Polar Bears

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