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Discordant decisions: A protected habitat is proposed for endangered polar bears, while oil drilling is approved nearby

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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polar bearThe U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has proposed designating some 200,000 square miles of lands and waters along the north coast of Alaska as "critical habitat" for endangered polar bears (Ursus maritimus). In May 2008 the bears received limited protected status as a "threatened species" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). A proposed habitat designation normally would have been made after the original ESA listing, but a lawsuit by several conservation groups was required in this case.

According to FWS, "Critical habitat identifies geographic areas containing features considered essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and that may require special management or protection. The designation of critical habitat under the ESA does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area. It does not allow government or public access to private lands. A critical habitat designation does not affect private lands unless federal funds, permits, or activities are involved."

The final ruling on establishing this critical habitat is due by June 30, 2010. If approved, it would be the largest protected habitat zone ever established in the U.S.

The proposal doesn’t cover every place where polar bears live in this country. FWS points out in its announcement (pdf) that none of the proposed critical habitat includes areas "where oil and gas exploration activities are known to occur." In fact, just this week the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service gave approval to Shell Offshore, Inc., to conduct exploratory oil drilling in the Beaufort Sea, a known polar bear domain that is not within the proposed habitat designation. The FWS is also a division of Interior.

In a prepared statement, Brendan Cummings, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, called these combined decisions "schizophrenic"—protecting "polar bear habitat in the Arctic, yet simultaneously sacrificing that habitat to feed our unsustainable addiction to oil."

Polar bears are mostly threatened by melting sea ice due to climate change. Other threats, according to FWS, include "impacts from activities such as oil and gas operations, subsistence harvest, shipping, and tourism," although none of those impacts were considered by FWS to be "significant" in their effect on declining polar bear populations.

"Today’s designation of critical habitat is an essential step toward saving this increasingly imperiled species," said Andrew Wetzler, director of the National Resources Defense Council’s Endangered Species Project, in a prepared statement. "But we have to do much more if we are to save the polar bear from extinction. Controlling greenhouse gas emissions, reducing commercial hunting in Canada, and stemming the tide of toxic chemicals in their habitat are all necessary to ensure this magnificent animal’s future."

So what’s the next step? In a press conference yesterday, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tom Strickland said, "As we move forward with a comprehensive energy and climate strategy, we will continue to work to protect the polar bear and its fragile environment."

That’s not very specific, but for now, it’s a start.

Image: Polar bear and cub, via Wikipedia

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  1. 1. DerbyCity 12:32 pm 10/24/2009

    We human beings are greedy,self centered,immoral and absolutely disgusting.The sooner we become extinct the better.

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  2. 2. deraley 3:31 pm 10/24/2009

    So we’ve moved from White Mans Guilt to the Guilt of All Humanity. Is this secular "orginal sin"?

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  3. 3. ElNochero 9:24 pm 10/24/2009

    Discordant decisions:????
    What is so discordant about attempting to balance nature preservation with human growth and energy needs?
    As usual, Scientific American is both UNscientific and UN-American, preferring to take our nation down to 3rd world standards, in the name of conservation, rather than find compromises that are beneficial to all life forms on this planet.

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  4. 4. Bops 9:32 pm 10/24/2009

    How do we contact the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service and let them know what …. they are. Maybe you can provide an e-mail address so we can at least express ourself. Give them the boot…and replace them.

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  5. 5. Bops 9:43 pm 10/24/2009

    What are you really saying? I’m ok with getting oil and gas, BUT not in a way that totally poisons the area. That’s NOT ok.

    What does sin have to do with this? People need to express them self to the right places to make changes.

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  6. 6. dskan 12:24 pm 10/25/2009

    When oil and gas companies are forced to, they turn environmental issues into a publication relations tour de forces. Given that people dislike drilling because of its effect on wildlife, Shell & Friends should proactively be setting up conservation areas for polar bears & friends.

    a) PR campaign to promote the companies’ environmental awareness.
    b) Press DOI to establish refuges
    c) Ensure the refuges are outside drilling areas. Use PR smoke screen to hide this.

    hm… waitaminute. Minus a + b, that sounds familiar…

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  7. 7. dskan 12:29 pm 10/25/2009

    It’s funny you equate drilling in the arctic with the third world, given that exploiting nature is practically a trade mark of the third world. Only in ultrarich countries like America can we simply set aside resources to never be touched.

    As for your science, unfortunately, sometimes there is no middle ground. People are all for middle ground as long as they win. There’s a ‘middle’ ground for drilling, but no ‘middle’ ground for Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Shades of gray, mate. Sometimes animals and habitats need to be left alone. There is no win in that for capitalism, just as there was no win in Teddy Roosevelt generating vast National Parks. Indeed, for many animals, disturbing a small region of habitat is about the same as destroying the entire thing. Most animals are much more fragile than humans.

    Except bears. Bears are the #1 threat to America.

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  8. 8. hotblack 3:51 pm 10/25/2009

    The bears can die, I won’t miss them. But I just like to see a fair fight. One politician, oil exec, or republican yuppie, vs one polar bear, one on one, in a ring. No weapons. If you guys can wipe em out fighting fair, their land is all yours to rape & pillage.

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  9. 9. slevitt 12:57 pm 10/26/2009

    Is there supposed to be a conspiracy between FWS and MMS because they are both part of DOI? Get outta here! An interesting bit of investigative journalism would be to report on the last time FWS was able to list a species and propose critical habitat WITHOUT a law suit. In addition to exploiting our natural resources, Americans are bloody good at taking everyone we disagree with to court rather than seeking compromise and collaboration.

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  10. 10. RDH 2:21 pm 10/26/2009

    hotblack, it is not "their land". And as far as nature is concerned (your fair fight), it has always been brains over brawn. We are the dominant species, no thanks to people like you. Now take your weapon-less rear out of whatever already cleared safe haven you live in and go talk sense into some al Qaeda terrorist. I look forward to seeing the video.

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  11. 11. nfiertel 2:58 pm 10/26/2009

    Polar bears are smart resilient and more interested than frightened by oil exploration activities. There are more than a few films showing the polar bears exploring the oil activity areas and workers have to pay heed to their presence. The melting of the sea ice is the danger to the Polar Bear though it is also felt by locals that the Polar Bear makes adjustments to its hunting. It is not an animal trapped in its habitat nor is it insufficiently intelligent to make hunting adjustments to its life. It will survive but having a safe area where it cannot be hunted is a good thing. Further, it has large areas of Canada to roam along that huge coastline also. They do not carry passports nor visa requirements to cross the borders.

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