WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is setting aside 187,000 square miles in Alaska as a “critical habitat” for polar bears, an action that could add restrictions to future offshore drilling for oil and gas.
The total, which includes large areas of sea ice off the Alaska coast, is about 13,000 square miles, or 8.3 million acres, less than in a preliminary plan released last year.
Tom Strickland, Interior assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks, said the designation would help polar bears stave off extinction, recognizing that the greatest threat is the melting of Arctic sea ice caused by climate change.
“This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations,” Strickland said.
Designation of critical habitat does not in itself block economic activity or other development, but requires federal officials to consider whether a proposed action would adversely affect the polar bear’s habitat.
Nearly 95 percent of the designated habitat is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s northern coast. Polar bears spend most of their lives on frozen ocean where they hunt seals and breed.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and the state’s oil and gas industry had complained that the preliminary plan released last year was too large and dramatically underestimated the potential economic impact.