SEATTLE – In what would be the largest habitat zone ever established in the U.S. to protect a species from extinction, the federal government Thursday proposed designating 200,541 square miles on the coast of Alaska as critical habitat for polar bears.
Officials said the designation is not likely to further slow the pace of oil and gas development, and it crucially would not impose any controls to slow the biggest threat to polar bears, the melting of sea ice as a result of climate change.
Those steps are crucial for polar bears but are being addressed separately in Congress through proposals to cap greenhouse gas emissions, said Tom Strickland, assistant Interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks.
“We recognize that the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of sea ice. We also recognize that the Endangered Species Act is not the tool to directly address carbon emissions, which are the root cause of climate change,” Strickland told reporters in a conference call from Washington, D.C.
The critical habitat, proposed after conservationists filed suit demanding it, follows warnings that the polar bear could disappear from U.S. waters within the next century.
The melting of sea ice has left the bears with a dramatic reduction in the ice floes they need for breeding, resting and hunting for seals and other food.
Increasingly, bears have been driven to land, where food is harder to come by and conflicts with residents of native villages of Alaska’s North Slope, who are legally entitled to hunt polar bears for subsistence, have become more common.
The proposed critical habitat designation covers three distinct areas along the northern and northwestern coasts of Alaska: the coastal barrier islands and spits along the coast; sea ice over the continental shelf in waters less than 300 meters deep; and terrestrial denning habitat ranging from five miles to about 20 miles inland.
Conservationists have warned that proposals for major new offshore oil and gas development in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas could impair efforts to protect the bear. Although the new habitat designation includes most of the current and proposed energy development zones, Strickland said new oil and gas activities already are being scrutinized as a result of the designation of the polar bear as a threatened species in May 2008.
Strickland said the proposed designation would provide “added emphasis to the plight of the bear.”
Designation as critical habitat would not, in itself, bar oil or gas development, but would make consideration of the effect on polar bears and their habitat an explicit part of any government-approved activity.
Conservation groups said the habitat designation is a step forward but does not achieve significant strides to protect the bear without addressing the major threats to the species.
“They can say that all they want, but they can’t change the plain language of the (Endangered Species Act). The law says federal agencies cannot ‘adversely modify’ critical habitat. Hard to see how putting an oil rig in the heart of polar bear habitat does not adversely modify it,” said Brendan Cummings, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, which is one of several groups suing to win heightened protections for the bears.
Thursday’s announcement starts a 60-day public comment period, with a final rule expected next year.
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