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11/02/2009

Polar Bear Gets Critical Habitat Designation

Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced its proposal to designate more than 128 million acres as critical habitat for the polar bear.  This announcement comes well over a year after the bear was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in May 2008.  When that listing occurred without the accompanying habitat designation mandated by law, a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the Department of the Interior (DOI).  Last week's announcement is the first step toward fulfilling part of the settlement that resulted from that suit: the DOI will publish a final rule designating critical habitat for the polar bear no later than June 30, 2010.

Polarbear4

Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Widlife Service

The proposed habitat would encompass some 200,000 square miles of sea ice habitat, barrier island habitat, and onshore denning habitat.  The area includes huge swaths of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, waters that the polar bear is completely dependent upon for survival.  These waters freeze over for much of the year and provide polar bears their hunting grounds and breeding grounds.  However, in the face of global warming the sea ice is decreasing.  In addition, these lands are sought after by the oil and gas industry.

If the polar bear is to have any chance at surviving as its ice-dependent existence literally melts away, we must work to reduce all other stressors that are straining its survival.  The proposed habitat does include areas where oil and gas exploration is occurring.  In fact, this announcement comes on the heels on another announcement by the Minerals Management Service saying it had approved two leases for Shell to drill exploratory wells in the bear's habitat in the Beaufort Sea.  The Department of the Interior must do all it can to reduce these unnecessary and dangerous stressors and help this iconic and key predator adapt to a warming world.

Read the Sierra Club's press release here.   

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