Photo credit: thelearnr/Creative Commons
Recently, the federal government designated 187,157 square miles in Alaska as a polar bear critical habitat. It is the largest area set aside since the founding of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
The decision, however, has not pleased everyone. A petroleum industry trade group has filed suit against the government, claiming the designation is unprecedented and excessive—and could tens of millions or more in economic effects."This is an area larger that 48 of the 50 states," attorneys for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association said, "exceeding the size of the State of California by nearly 25,000 square miles." The group also questioned whether such a large-scale effort was needed to protect polar bear habitat, which they described as "abundant," with a population of 20,000 to 25,000 animals in 19 subpopulations.
Conservationists disagree. Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, commented that "AOGA's suit is premised on the fiction that polar bear populations are stable." Alaska's two best-studied populations are known to be in decline, the group points out, and the IUCN lists eight of the world's 19 subpopulations of polar bears as "declining"—including both subpopulations in Alaska.
Other research has shown the situation for polar bears to be even more severe. A U.S. Geological Survey model estimates that polar bears have a 50 percent chance of reaching extirpation in Alaska by 2030. The main threat is melting sea ice, which the bears need to hunt for food. Other threats include environmental pollution, encroaching human populations, and competition from new predators like grizzly bears.
The new critical habitat designation includes areas of sea ice that oil and gas companies hope to drill. "The Service failed to balance the conservation benefits and the economic benefits," the lawsuit claims, "to exclude areas where the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of specifying such areas as part of the critical habitat."
Even if the designation wins this first round of contention, it's future is not assured. The state of Alaska and a coalition of Alaska Native groups have both filed notice of their intent to sue over the new polar bear management plan.