Earthjustice welcomes protection for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act, but calls on the government to put the brakes on oil and gas activities in polar bear habitat.
"The Arctic is melting and polar bears are feeling the heat," said Earthjustice attorney Clayton Jernigan. "We need a time out on further oil activity in the Polar Bear Seas until we all understand what measures are necessary to protect the polar bears, other wildlife, and people that live in this rapidly transforming ecosystem."
Among other steps, the Fish and Wildlife Service must now designate critical habitat for the bears and create a recovery plan. Other federal agencies are now required to work together with Fish and Wildlife Service to closely scrutinize oil and gas activities that could harm polar bears or their habitat.
"It remains to be seen how much this belated listing decision will improve protections for polar bears and their rapidly shrinking habitat," explained Jernigan. "There is reason for concern, as this listing comes amid the lame-duck administration's rush to sell off pristine Arctic Ocean waters off northern Alaska to the oil industry and approve seismic blasting and drilling in those seas."
The Bush administration announced that polar bears would be listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. The administration, however, is employing a loophole called a 4(d) rule that appears calculated to limit protection for the ice bears and their shrinking sea-ice habitat in areas where oil and gas development is planned or proceeding. Essentially the administration has signaled that it will extend the bears no greater protection from oil and gas development than they previously had under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
"By listing the bear as threatened, instead of endangered, and adopting weaker protections for polar bears and their habitat, the administration is attempting to make it easier for oil and gas development to proceed on a fast track in prime polar bear habitat," said Jernigan. "Earthjustice will continue to work hard to protect polar bears and their habitat."
Earthjustice is currently involved in three separate legal actions aimed at protecting polar bears and their remaining habitat in the Polar Bear Seas. In the first lawsuit, a federal court of appeals has put a preliminary halt to hastily approved exploratory drilling in areas of the Beaufort Sea where an oil spill could lead to mass polar bear fatalities, according to government scientists. In the second lawsuit, Earthjustice represents environmental groups and Alaska Natives who are challenging the Bush administration's sale of oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea. The third lawsuit challenges regulations issued under the Marine Mammal Protection Act that allow the oil companies to harass or "take" polar bears they might encounter in the course of their work in the Beaufort Sea region.
The Bush administration announced in January that it would delay its decision to list the polar bear and then pressed forward with its sale of oil and gas leases over vast swaths of prime polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea. As a result, the FWS did not determine, under the Endangered Species Act, whether opening this pristine area to oil and gas development will push the polar bear even further towards the brink of extinction. The unfortunate delay in this listing prompted multiple congressional committee hearings to investigate whether development was given precedence over the continued survival of polar bears. Several bills calling for a time out from oil and gas development in the Polar Bear Seas are currently working their way through Congress.
Earthjustice will continue efforts to ensure that oil development in the Alaskan Arctic does not leave polar bears with no place left to call home.