The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed listing the polar bear as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), posing potentially serious ramifications for future resource development activities in Alaska and the Lower 48. The proposed listing responds to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity to list the bear as threatened and to designate critical habitat.
The primary threat to polar bears as identified by the Service is the decrease in Arctic sea ice coverage. The Service has linked melting sea ice in the Arctic to global climate change and the agency fears the bears’ habitat may be melting away. Some computer models predict summer sea ice, which polar bears use to hunt for ringed seals, may decline 50 to 100 percent by as early as 2040.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne emphasized to North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin that the listing is in no way intended to block oil and gas development on the North Slope or disrupt subsistence hunting. However, environmental groups have made it clear they intend to use a listing as leverage, perhaps eventually through litigation, to restrict development and push for new initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
If the decision is to list, federal agencies must ensure any activities they authorize must not jeopardize the bears or their habitat. That could include activities such as shipping, local community development, and oil exploration. Even projects in the Lower 48 that produce or release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere could come under additional scrutiny.
In a letter to Kempthorne, Governor Palin warned that listing the polar bear under the ESA has the potential to damage Alaska’s and the nation’s economy without any benefit to polar bear numbers or their habitat.
“We know listing polar bears as endangered or threatened will not impact polar bear numbers or cause sea ice to freeze,” Palin wrote Kempthorne. “What we don’t know are all the unintended effects of listing. It is highly probable that among them will be third-party lawsuits from litigants with a variety of motivations to list large portions of Alaska’s North Slope as critical habitat or to limit emissions of greenhouse gases throughout the United States.”
The Service has acknowledged that its opinion regarding the impact of melting sea ice on polar bears is not universally shared in the scientific community. Moreover, the proposed listing is unusual since the bears are abundant and their population in Alaska is healthy in size and distribution. Worldwide, the population is near historic highs and has increased from 8,000-10,000 between 1965-1970 to as many as 25,000 today all during a trend of warming temperatures.
A number of scientists have indicated polar bears would not become extinct as ice coverage is likely to remain during the winter. They point out polar bears have adapted to change and have survived at least two major warming periods in the past.
Polar bears are currently well managed and protected by numerous international and domestic agreements, regulatory mechanisms and laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act.
On the international front, this species receives added protection from treaties such as the International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears and the recent agreement between the United States and Russia for the Chukchi-Bering Sea population. In addition, the species receives further protection from the self-regulating agreement for subsistence take between Native polar bear hunters in Alaska and Canada.
“Considered together, the extensive legal authorities in place make the polar bear one of the most protected species in the world, and they provide a more than adequate basis for addressing all realistic threats,” said Eric Fjelstad, an environmental and natural resources attorney with Perkins Coie in Anchorage.
Fjelstad said the Fish and Wildlife Service has not shown that polar bears are experiencing problems under any of the factors set forth in the ESA other than the speculative risk associated with global warming and sea ice loss. “The listing is unprecedented and will be controversial because of the lack of consensus on global warming and its impact,” Fjelstad said.
The proposed listing depends on projections based on computer modeling of the rate and extent of sea ice decline, rather than on the actual numbers of bears today.
In Alaska, there are 4,700 polar bears living along the coastline or offshore in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. In Canada, the population has increased 25 percent during the past decade to 15,000 with 11 of 13 populations stable or increasing. Where the numbers are decreasing, some biologists believe the problem is not global warming, but overpopulation in areas where the bears are competing for food.
Outside Canada, only two populations, accounting for 16 percent of the total number of bears, are decreasing. In contrast, another two populations, 13.6 percent of the total number, are growing.
Critical habitat designations could ultimately cover portions of the coastal plains of ANWR and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A), as well as areas of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. America’s largest oil fields are located on the North Slope and future exploration and development activities will likely focus on the NPR-A and some areas offshore.
The U.S. Minerals Management Service estimates the Beaufort Sea contains more than 6.94 billion barrels of recoverable oil and 32 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The Chukchi Sea offers great promise with a mean estimate of 15.4 billion barrels of oil and 60 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. NPR-A likely contains 10.6 billion barrels of oil, as much as the mean estimate of ANWR.
In the Federal Register, the Service noted oil development has not had a direct adverse impact on polar bears, but warned melting sea ice will push more bears onshore. It also warned that offshore development would encroach on bear habitat.
Industry believes mitigation measures can continue to help reduce the potential effects of development on the polar bear. No lethal take associated with industry has occurred during the period covered by incidental take regulations, which include measures that minimize impacts to the species.
A recent editorial posted at the Wall Street Journal Online said the proposed listing appears to be more about the politics of global climate change. The newspaper warned once the bears are listed under the ESA, any threat perceived or real to sea ice would likely lead to third-party lawsuits demanding federal mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The newspaper said any government decision to limit greenhouse gases should be debated in the open and not legislated or regulated through the back door by the Endangered Species Act.
RDC Executive Director Jason Brune said the federal government has an obligation to ensure a listing decision is based on real science and the actual polar bear population, rather than speculative computer modeling.
“Conservation programs and laws that promote polar bear protection already exist,” Brune said. “I believe an ESA listing cannot be justified.”
A final decision to list is a year away. The Service is accepting comments on the proposed listing until April 9. It is seeking information regarding measures to consider and reasons why areas where polar bear hunt prey and den should or should not be designated critical habitat.
Comments may be submitted to Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Marine Mammals Management Office, 1011 East Tudor Road, Anchorage, AK 99503. Comments may also be sent to the following email address: email@example.com.
More than 100,000 comments have been received.