Environmental groups force “critical habitat” designation for polar bears, despite Palin’s lawsuit


The Center for Biological Diversity, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace have garnered a partial legal settlement as part of a lawsuit against the Department of Interior to use the provisions of the Endangered Species Act to protect the polar bear, Ursus maritimus, from the devastating effects of sea ice melt caused by climate change.  After Interior Sec. Kempthorne’s court-ordered, May ruling declaring the polar bear a threatened species, Gov. Sarah Palin and others sued the Interior Dept. to get the decision overturned.  The federal government has now agreed to finalize a rule designating “critical habitat” for polar bears off Alaska’s coast by June 30, 2010—a step that will also serve to restrict offshore oil exploration and drilling near these areas.  This is a positive step, but is it enough to save the polar bear from extinction? 

Post by Anne Polansky

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, there are about 3,500 polar bears in Alaska, many of them concentrated in the Chukchi Sea, waters the US shares with Russia and Canada.  Sea ice melt is occurring rapidly in this area: according to data collected by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), the arctic “sea ice minimum” for 2008 reached its low on September 12, logging in at 4.52 million square kilometers (1.74 million square miles), the second-lowest area of sea ice recorded since 1979; the record low occurred last year.  Most of the significant melting has been occurring in the Beaufort, Chukchi, and East Siberian Seas of the Arctic Ocean. 

Ironically, an aerial survey of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas conducted by scientists with the US Minerals Management Service in advance of potential offshore oil development resulted in the discovery of at least nine polar bears swimming in open water, one over 60 miles from shore, a near-certain death sentence. 

A factsheet published by the US Fish and Wildlife Service provides a simple explanation of the dire straits polar bears now find themselves swimming in, so to speak:

Special Adaptations

The blubber and fat of ringed seals provides polar bears with the nutrients they need to stay warm in their harsh environment. They can eat other sources of food, but their bodies demand the high caloric intake from ringed seals. Terrestrial sources cannot meet the high caloric needs of polar bears, and consequently terrestrial foods cannot substitute for the loss of access to seals. Polar bears store energy in the form of fat, most of which they acquire from consuming these seals. The most productive seal-hunting periods are during the spring and early summer (before the ice retreats) and following the open-water period in the fall. Because changes in sea ice are most dramatic during the summer/fall, this is the time when it can be hardest forears to hunt seals. A reduction in sea ice can extend the time period during which bears do not have access to their primary prey. The effects of a longer ice-free season can cause a decline in polar bear health, reproduction, survival, and population size. Polar bear survival depends on large and accessible seal populations and vast areas of ice from which to hunt.

In addition to ice melt, Alaska is suffering other consequences of global climatic disruption:  the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (ACCAP)—one of NOAA’s 8 climate services facilities under the Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessment (RISA) program— reports record rainfall in several Alaska towns in August including Juneau, Ketchikan, Annette, and Kotzebue; floods in Anchorage and in the town of Nenana north of Denali National Park caused the Alaska Railroad to suspend operations for several days and affected much of the town. 

Professor Richard Steiner of the University of Alaska’s Marine Advisory Program is a harsh critic of Gov. Palin’s stance on climate change; he is quoted:  “While these bears are swimming around in an ice-free coastal Arctic Ocean, the only thing the State of Alaska is doing is suing the federal government trying to overturn the listing of polar bears.”

While Sec. Kempthorne relied on IPCC and other scientific conclusions on which to base the decision to list the bear as threatened, Governor-turned-VP-candidate Palin relied heavily on studies written by authors with documented ties to the oil industry.  Several months ago and again last week it was reported that Palin relied in no small part on a paper—“Polar Bears of Western Hudson Bay and Climate Change”—authored by Willie Soon, Sallie Balliunas and others funded in part by ExxonMobil to make denialist claims.      

Prof. Steiner sums the situation up nicely:

“The bottom line here is that polar bears need sea ice, sea ice is decaying, and the bears are in very serious trouble.  For any people who are still non-believers in global warming and the impacts it is having in the Arctic, this should answer their doubts once and for all.”

Apparently, VP candidate Palin didn’t get the memo.

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The concept of “critical habitat” as it applies to the Endangered Species Act:

Critical habitat is defined in the Endangered Species Act (16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.) as: 
“(i) the specific areas within the geographical area currently occupied by the species, at the time it is listed… on which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection; and (ii) specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed upon a determination by the Secretary that such areas are essential for the conservation of the species.’‘

The US Fish and Wildlife Service regulations implementing the ESA (under 50 CFR 424.12) describe the essential physical and biological features to include (1) space for individual and population growth, and normal behavior; (2) food, water, air, light, minerals, or other nutritional or physiological requirements; (3) cover or shelter; (4) sites for breeding, reproduction, rearing of offspring; and (5) habitats that are protected from disturbance or are representative of the historic geographical and ecological distribution of a species.




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