Department of Interior sets “critical habitat” area for polar bear along Alaska’s north coast.
The Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency of the Department of Interior, announced today that it plans to set aside more than 187,000 square miles — about 120 million acres — of onshore barrier islands, denning areas and offshore sea ice as critical habitat for the polar bear. This is the most aggressive proposal ever put forward by the federal government to protect a threatened species and is partially in response to a court order requiring the Department of Interior to reconsider elements of its 2008 decision to list the polar bear as “threatened” and not “endangered.”
The lawsuit was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and Greenpeace. Today’s critical habitat designation is intended to “protect coastal lands and waters vital to the survival of the polar bear.”
“The critical habitat designation clearly identifies the areas that need to be protected if the polar bear is to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic,” said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity. “However, unless the Interior Department starts to take seriously its mandate to actually protect the polar bear’s critical habitat, we will be writing the species’ obituary rather than its recovery plan.”
“Polar bears are slipping away,” said Andrew Wetzler, Director of NRDC’s Land and Wildlife Program. “But we know that there are crucial protections that can keep them around. Today’s designation is a start, especially in warding off ill-considered oil and gas development in America’s most important polar bear habitat.”
“Designating polar bear critical habitat is a good first step toward protecting this species,” said Melanie Duchin, a Greenpeace campaigner in Anchorage, Alaska. “However, as long as the secretary of the interior maintains that he can do nothing about greenhouse emissions and global warming, protections for the polar bear will ultimately be ineffective.”