WASHINGTON -- To better safeguard threatened polar bears, the federal government should expand the size of its proposed critical habitat area in Alaska and curb oil and gas development there, the National Wildlife Federation said Wednesday.
The federation criticized the Department of the Interior for promoting expanded oil and gas exploration in the same areas that it wants to designate as the protected area for polar bears.
The Wildlife Federation's report came one week after the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service approved three exploratory permits for Shell in the Chukchi Sea. MMS granted approval for Shell to drill two exploratory wells in the Beaufort Sea in October.
The Interior Department listed the polar bear as a threatened species last year, but delayed designating critical habitat as required by law, until now. The parts of northern Alaska proposed for polar bear critical habitat largely overlap with areas proposed for oil and gas leasing. The Endangered Species Act would prohibit destruction or "adverse modification" of designated critical habitat.
While U.S. officials at the climate talks in Copenhagen talk about ways to reduce global warming, "back here at home they're recklessly moving forward by handing out oil and gas permits," said Wildlife Federation biologist Doug Inkley. "Our own government is in conflict with itself in trying to protect polar bears while promoting oil and gas activities in critical polar bear habitat."
The Wildlife Federation report proposed strict oversight under the Endangered Species Act to ensure that nothing the oil industry does harms polar bear habitat.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed 200,541 square miles of critical habitat, made up of land, barrier islands and sea ice, where polar bears make dens and hunt for seals. The agency said that ice over shallower water was the bears' most important habitat, because seals are most plentiful there.
In a report on its proposal, the agency said that oil spills would pose the biggest risk to polar bears. Other disturbances from oil and gas equipment could displace bears from hunting or force females with cubs to abandon dens too soon, it said.
The federation recommended expanding the critical habitat area to include the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Beaufort Sea from the coast to 200 miles out. As sea ice near shore declines, these areas likely will become more important for polar bears, the report said.
The group also proposed adding land along the northwest Alaska coast, saying that with less ice in the Chukchi Sea, polar bears might not be able to cross wide expanses of open water to reach their denning areas on Wrangel Island off Russia and might make dens on the Alaska coast instead.
Research by the National Snow and Ice Data Center shows that sea ice in prime polar bear seal-hunting areas declined significantly over the past 30 years during October and November, when the bears are busy finding food to bulk up for winter.
The NWF report said that fall sea ice declined by 10 percent or more compared with the previous long-term average in much of the core area used by polar bears in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
The NWF recommended that the federal government address the ice loss problem with policies that reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases by 80 percent by 2050.
The Interior Department is taking comments on its proposed critical habitat zone for polar bears through Dec. 28 and will make a final decision by the end of June.