Interior finalizes ‘critical habitat’ for polar bears threatened by climate change

The Interior Department is establishing large regions in northern Alaska as “critical habitat” for polar bears that are threatened by melting sea ice linked to climate change — a decision that could affect oil-and-gas development.

Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a final decision Wednesday to designate 187,000 square miles of “on-shore barrier islands, denning areas and offshore sea-ice,” for the bears, which were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2008 in response to a lawsuit by environmental groups.

While it does not set up a protected area such as a wildlife refuge or reserve, the designation nonetheless increases the level of protection for the bears under the species law, according to federal officials.

“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, in a prepared statement.

“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,” he added.

The habitat designation adds protection by “ensuring that federal agency activities do not destroy or adversely modify,” the areas, according to Interior.

Federal agencies must consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service when authorizing, funding or carrying out actions that might affect species protected under the ESA or their habitat, the agency notes in a summary of the action.

The habitat designation only affects private landowners when their action has a “federal nexus” such as permitting. But it also serves notice to landowners that their actions could affect a protected species.

“For actions on private or other non-federal lands that do not involve a federal nexus, designation of critical habitat alerts entities planning to undertake those activities to the potential of inadvertently causing harm or ‘take’ to a listed species,” Interior notes.

Interior’s announcement notes that the designation has implications for development in the oil-rich regions coveted by energy companies, stating, “the areas included in this critical habitat designation do encompass areas where oil and gas exploration activities are known to occur.”

But the agency predicted that the impact would be minor because the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act already mandate efforts to avoid harming the iconic creatures.

“Because the ESA and MMPA already provide protection to the polar bear and extensive consultation and mitigation activities already take place under these laws, additional impacts to oil and gas development resulting from the critical habitat designation are expected to be small,” the agency said in a summary of the habitat designation.

Environmental groups – which have used the courts to gain protections for the bears – praised the habitat designation but quickly said it should be used to block oil-and-gas drilling in the region.

They called on Interior to prevent drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off Alaska’s northern coast – a region coveted by Royal Dutch Shell and other companies – in light of the decision.

“Polar bears are slipping away,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Land and Wildlife Program, in a statement. “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.”

This post was updated at 2:36 p.m.