Federal Government Delays Protecting Polar Bear

Global warming continues to destroy polar bear habitat


Clayton Jernigan, Earthjustice, (907) 586-2751
Erik Grafe, Earthjustice, (907) 586-2751

The Department of the Interior announced today that it will delay its decision whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act due to the threat posed by global climate change. Climate change is melting the sea ice that is the polar bear’s home causing drowning, starvation, and ever more deaths among young cubs. As Interior Department officials contemplate protecting polar bears under the Endangered Species Act, the Bush administration pushes ahead full speed with its aggressive plans to open vast swaths of the Alaskan Arctic, including nearly all polar bear habitat within the United States, to oil and gas development.

In just a few weeks, the administration will lease for oil and gas development nearly 30 million acres of the Chukchi Sea, a pristine part of the Arctic Ocean off the northwest coast of Alaska. The Chukchi is home to one of the state’s two polar bear populations and numerous other ice-associated marine mammals, including the endangered bowhead whale, the ribbon seal, and the Pacific walrus. 

Earthjustice attorney Clayton Jernigan said, “The National Academy of Sciences has found that global climate change and arctic oil and gas development will combine to  harm polar bears. Given the possibility of an oil spill, offshore oil development poses an especially grave threat to polar bears. Yet, despite record shattering losses of sea ice this summer, the Bush administration continues to demonstrate its willingness to sacrifice even more polar bear habitat to oil and gas development.” 

Over the next five years, the administration has scheduled four additional lease sales in the Arctic Ocean, two each in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The Beaufort Sea lies to the east of the Chukchi. The area slated for leasing encompasses nearly all of the Arctic Ocean that is subject to the control of the United States.

The Bush administration has already leased considerable portions of the Beaufort Sea. So far no drilling has occurred on these leases. Environmental groups and Alaska Natives, represented by Earthjustice, convinced the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to put a halt to plans by Shell to begin drilling last summer on several of these leases pending a full review of the case. The Minerals Management Service, a division of the Department of Interior, had approved Shell’s plans to drill at several areas just offshore of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which provides the most important den habitat for pregnant polar bears in all of Alaska, despite having previously recognized that an oil spill in the area could kill scores of polar bears. A decision in the case is expected in the coming months.

While legislative attempts to allow oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have thus far failed, the Bush administration has attempted to lease all other federal lands abutting the Beaufort Sea, coastal areas that polar bears increasingly inhabit and use for denning as the sea ice disappears. A federal court thwarted the administration’s attempt to sacrifice sensitive areas of Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, the largest contiguous public land area in the nation and essential breeding habitat for migratory waterfowl and caribou, to oil and gas development, after Earthjustice filed suit on behalf of a coalition of environmental groups.

Finally, in 2006, the federal government issued regulations that enable oil and gas operations in and adjacent to the Beaufort Sea to “take” or harass polar bears. Earthjustice represents environmental groups that have sued to have the regulations struck down, arguing that the government must evaluate the threat to polar bears from the combination of global climate change and oil and gas development, and strengthen protections to ensure that Arctic oil and gas development does not further imperil polar bears. 

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