Proposed Alaskan habitat will do little to stop polar bear deaths

habitatA quiet little story that appeared on Reuters mid-week came and went with little fanfare. Before a U.S. district court, a coalition of oil industry groups and Alaska Natives successfully won an order to vacate the government’s polar habitat that was designated in 2013. And while the Obama administration plans to appeal that ruling, the decision to “list large swathes of the Arctic as necessary for the conservation” of polar bears has been rescinded. And for good reason.

Every ten years, for periods of 2-3 years, polar bears literally die from starvation. The cause? Thick spring ice conditions in the Southern Beaufort regions of Alaska, which prevents the polar bears from eating. But the Obama administration is determined to overturn that ruling even though the move wouldn’t protect these large mammals from dying.

Dr. Susan J. Crockford, a zoologist and polar bear expert with more than 35 years experience, writes that if successful, “the Obama administration’s recommendation to Congress that they approve a proposed Arctic wildlife refuge area on Alaska’s North Slope … would not protect polar bears from the starvation deaths due to thick spring ice conditions.” These deaths occur in the region for 2-3 years out of every 10 since at least 1960, when tracking began. (See map for designated habitat area)

Crockford notes that the the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) already provides substantial protection for Southern Beaufort and Chukchi Sea polar bears, and this extra layer of designation may have other implications for Alaska’s North Shore. She lays out four important issues related to the proposed ESA critical habitat designation for polar bears that are often overlooked.

First, Crockford notes that the primary cause of polar bear deaths in the Southern Beaufort region is the cyclical nature of thick spring ice, usually lasting 2-3 years every 10 years, and occurring relatively close to shore. Second, very few polar bears spend their time near the shore in Alaska, because “most females den out on the sea ice, not on land.” In fact, the “bears that den onshore in that region are the ones most at risk from decadal bouts of thick spring ice.”

Third, the United States is “uniquely aggressive attitude toward designating Arctic marine mammals as ‘threatened with extinction’ due to the predicted effects of man-made global warming, even though the US has the least amount of sea ice habit of all nations” situated around the North Pole. And finally, the MMPA of 1972 already offers a “massive amount of protection to polar bears (considered a marine mammal): the MMPA assumed ALL marine mammals are, or may be, at risk of extinction due to human activities.”

Crockford believes a “few influential people” believe that the MMPA of 1972 has not provided sufficient protection for polar bears and are not stringent enough to do so moving forward. But neither the MMPA nor the new ESA habitat designation can “protect polar bears from the large number of deaths by starvation they suffer due to thick spring ice conditions every 10 years or so in this region.”

If implemented, the new ESA habitat designation would be one of the nation’s largest in history, and would be a first step in hampering new oil and gas exploration in the Arctic’s North Shore. This is something that environmentalists, and the Obama administration, have been clamoring for and see the polar bear, and to some extent the ringed seal, as a means of reaching their shared goal: shutting down oil and gas exploration in the Arctic. Which would make Russian President Vladimir Putin a very happy, and wealthy, man.

And while having an area marked off as a critical habitat won’t prevent current Arctic drilling, it does hamper a company’s ability to expand if the regulatory agency determines that it would be detrimental to an animal’s natural surroundings. In environmental parlance, it’s the first step in pushing a so-called ‘critical habitat’ toward national park or refuge status, which allows the government to prohibit current, and future, economic activity.