WWF applauds new Alaskan polar bear habitat



Posted on 30 November 2010  | 
The US government has announced that 484,000 square kilometres of sea ice, islands, and coastline considered important to polar bears is now designated critical habitat in Alaska.

The designation does not create parks or refuges, but it does mean that federally regulated activities on designated land get an extra level of review.

"This will not do all that is necessary to protect the bears, but it is part of the solution” says WWF polar bear specialist Geoff York. “It would be good to see other polar bear range states take similar action."

A US government release lays out what the designation means to in terms of oil and gas exploration:

"Section 7 of the ESA [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 the 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 Service.

"Consultation is a process through which Federal agencies and the Service jointly work to identify potential impacts on listed species and their habitats, and identify ways to implement these actions consistent with species conservation. This 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 affect on the species."

"As some of the habitat now designated is in areas of interest to oil and gas companies, it will be interesting to see how well this consultation process works," says York.

"We know that a chance of a blowout will always exist, and we know that current management processes, technology, and response capacity fall short of being able to effectively contain a spill in Arctic waters." 

The designation of the habitat also does not address the largest threat to the species – climate change.

"We urge the US and all polar bear Range States to incorporate climate change scenarios into their long term planning," says York.

"The Arctic is changing fast and we need to look ahead and make sure polar bears and other sea ice dependent species have a place of refuge as the sea ice, their most important habitat, melts away."
Polar bear (Ursus maritimus) in Manitoba, Canada.
© WWF-Canon / Michel TERRETTAZ Enlarge

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