Jane Van Ryan
Posted October 28, 2009
Yet, some conservation groups have expressed dismay over last Thursday's decision by the federal government to create critical habitat for polar bears in Alaska. The proposed habitat area covers 200,541 sq. miles including portions of the northern and northwestern coasts, coastal barrier islands as well as coastal spits, sea ice in waters less than about 1,000 feet deep, and denning areas as far as 20 miles inland. Apparently that wasn't enough for some groups who immediately warned that planned oil and natural gas development in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas could be harmful to bears.
It's believed that about 3,500 polar bears inhabit the Beaufort and Chukchi sea areas. Native Alaskans are allowed to hunt them for subsistence. Last year polar bears were listed as "threatened," and conservationist groups sued to force the government to establish a critical habitat for them.
Polar bears have co-existed with oil operations on Alaska's northern coastline for several years, and this relationship can, and should, continue. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has repeatedly acknowledged that human activities in the Arctic currently are not a threat to the polar bear species or its habitat. Furthermore, the twin goals of producing energy and protecting the environment are not mutually exclusive. The United States needs secure supplies of oil and natural gas, and the oil and natural gas industry has proven its ability to protect the environment and the Arctic wildlife while producing energy.
According to an Interior Department spokesperson, the critical habitat proposal will not prohibit scheduled energy development in Alaska's northern environs, but it will add to the polar bear protections that have been in place for many years. Any operations, including those related to oil and natural gas development will be subjected to additional scrutiny to mitigate the threat of polar bear extinction.
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