WASHINGTON, DC, October 22, 2009 (ENS) – In partial settlement of a polar bear protection lawsuit brought against the U.S. government by three conservation groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today proposed to designate more than 200,541 square miles of coastal lands and waters along the north coast of Alaska as critical habitat for the polar bear.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Department of the Interior, will open a 60-day public comment period on the proposal. The United States has two polar bear populations – in the Southern Beaufort Sea and the Chukchi Sea.

“This administration is fully committed to the protection and recovery of the polar bear,” Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland said today.

“Proposing critical habitat for this iconic species is one step in the right direction to help this species stave off extinction, recognizing that the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of Arctic sea ice caused by climate change,” said Strickland. “As we move forward with a comprehensive energy and climate strategy, we will continue to work to protect the polar bear and its fragile environment.”

The plaintiff conservation groups – Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace – point out that the critical habitat proposal comes the same week that another Interior Department agency, the Minerals Management Service, approved oil company plans for exploratory drilling in the polar bear’s habitat in the Beaufort Sea.

A polar bear rests with her cubs on pack ice in the Beaufort Sea. (Photo courtesy USFWS)

“If polar bears are to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic, we need to protect their critical habitat, not turn it into a polluted industrial zone,” said Brendan Cummings, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“The Interior Department is schizophrenic, declaring its intent to protect polar bear habitat in the Arctic, yet simultaneously sacrificing that habitat to feed our unsustainable addiction to oil,” Cummings said.

The Minerals Management Service said Monday it will allow Shell to drill for oil and gas in the far western area of Camden Bay, west of Kaktovik.

Shell is also seeking permits to drill on its leases in the Chukchi Sea in 2010. Alaska Native organizations and environmental groups sued to prevent the drilling, and under court order, the MMS is rewriting its analysis of the company’s plans.

Today’s Fish and Wildlife Service proposal identifies critical habitat in three separate areas – barrier island habitat, sea ice habitat and terrestrial denning habitat.

Barrier island habitat includes coastal barrier islands and spits along Alaska’s coast, and is used for denning, refuge from human disturbances, access to maternal dens and feeding habitat and travel along the coast.

Sea ice habitat is located over the continental shelf, and includes water 1,000 feet and less in depth. Terrestrial denning habitat includes lands within about 20 miles of the northern coast of Alaska between the Canadian border and the Kavik River and within about five miles between the Kavik River and Barrow.

In May 2008, the Department of the Interior listed the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act due to loss of sea ice habitat caused by climate change.

The three conservation groups then sued Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne under the Endangered Species Act, alleging that by classifying the polar bear as “threatened” rather than “endangered,” he was ignoring the best available scientific information.

A partial settlement of that lawsuit was reached October 7, 2008. It provides that the federal government will designate critical habitat for polar bears off Alaska’s north coast by June 30, 2010. Some issues in the case are still being litigated.

While the designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or private lands unless federal funds, permits, or activities are involved, the areas of proposed critical habitat do encompass areas where oil and gas exploration activities are known to occur, the Fish and Wildlife Service said today.

The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to ensure that the activities they authorize, fund or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a protected species or to destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat.

If a federal action may affect the polar bear or its critical habitat, the permitting or action agency must enter into consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service. In this case, once polar bear critical habitat is designated, the Minerals Management Service would have to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service on oil drilling leases and permits.

The consultation provision “applies to oil and gas development activities, as well as any other activity within the range of the polar bear that may have an adverse effect on the species,” Strickland said.

“We all know that polar bears are in serious long-term trouble,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC’s Wildlife Conservation Project. “Today’s designation of critical habitat is an essential step toward saving this increasingly imperiled species. But we have to do much more if we are to save the polar bear from extinction.”

“Controlling greenhouse gas emissions, reducing commercial hunting in Canada, and stemming the tide of toxic chemicals in their habitat are all necessary to ensure this magnificent animal’s future,” Wetzler said.

The settlement agreement also requires the Department of the Interior to finalize guidelines for the nonlethal deterrence of polar bears deemed to pose a threat to public safety.

As the ice retreats further from shore and more polar bears are stranded on land, the number of human-bear interactions is increasing, with numerous bears being shot as a consequence, the conservation groups point out.

The deterrence guidelines must be finalized by March 31, 2010. As with the critical habitat designation, the guidelines will be preceded by a proposed rule, along with public comment and public hearings.

“Designating polar bear critical habitat is a good first step toward protecting this species,” said Melanie Duchin, a Greenpeace campaigner in Anchorage, Alaska. “However, as long as the secretary of the interior maintains that he can do nothing about greenhouse emissions and global warming, protections for the polar bear will ultimately be ineffective.”

Polar bears are completely dependent upon Arctic sea-ice habitat for survival. Throughout most of their range, polar bears remain on the sea ice year-round or spend only short periods on land.

In addition to the U.S. polar bear populations, polar bears also are found throughout the East Siberian, Laptev, and Kara Seas of Russia; Fram Strait and Greenland Sea; Barents Sea of northern Europe; Baffin Bay, which separates Canada and Greenland; and throughout most of the Canadian Arctic archipelago.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.