The 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