U.S. Designates Critical Habitat for Threatened Polar Bears

WASHINGTON, DC, November 29, 2010 (ENS) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated more than 187,000 square miles of on-shore barrier islands, denning areas and offshore sea-ice as critical habitat for the threatened polar bear under the Endangered Species Act.

The designation identifies geographic areas containing features considered essential for the conservation of the bear that require special management or protection.

“This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations,” said Tom Strickland, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks. “Nevertheless, the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of its sea ice habitat caused by human-induced climate change. We will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species.”

“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. “However, unless the Interior Department starts to take seriously its mandate to actually protect the polar bear’s critical habitat, we will be writing the species’ obituary rather than its recovery plan.”

A large male polar bear walks on the Arctic coast near Barrow, Alaska. November 10, 2010. (Photo by Steve Amstrup courtesy U.S. Geological Survey)

Federal agencies are prohibited from taking any actions that may harm or damage critical habitat. 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, say conservationists.

The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area. It does not allow government or the public access to private lands. A critical habitat designation does not affect private lands unless federal funds, permits, or activities are involved.

“Polar bears are slipping away,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of Natural Resources Defense Council’s Land and Wildlife Program. “But we know that there are crucial protections that can keep them around. Today’s designation is a start, especially in warding off ill-considered oil and gas development in America’s most important polar bear habitat.”

The final designation, contained in a final rule that was submitted on November 23, 2010 to the Federal Register, encompasses three areas or units: 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.

About 96 percent of the area designated as critical habitat is sea ice habitat. Sea ice habitat is located over the continental shelf, and includes ice over water up to 984 feet in depth extending to the outer limits of the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, 200 miles from shore.

Terrestrial denning habitat includes lands within 20 miles of the northern coast of Alaska between the Canadian border and the Kavik River and within five miles between the Kavik River and Barrow, Alaska.

On October 29, 2009, the Service proposed to designate 200,541 square miles as critical habitat for the polar bear. The final rule reduces this designation to 187,157 square miles, a reduction due mostly to corrections designed to accurately reflect the U.S. boundary for proposed sea ice habitat.

In addition, the critical habitat designated in the final rule differs from that originally proposed in several ways.

  • five U.S. Air Force radar sites are exempt from the final rule based on their Integrated Natural Resource Management Plans, which include measures to protect polar bears occurring in habitats within or adjacent to these facilities
  • the Native communities of Barrow and Kaktovik were excluded from the final designation
  • all existing manmade structures, regardless of land ownership status, are not included in the final critical habitat designation

The polar bear was protected under the Endangered Species Act as threatened, range-wide, on May 15, 2008, due to loss of sea ice habitat caused by climate change. Other threats evaluated at that time included impacts from activities such as oil and gas operations, subsistence harvest, shipping, and tourism. No other impacts were considered as significant in the decline, but minimizing effects from these activities could become increasingly important for polar bears as their numbers decline.

“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.”

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