US Designates 'Critical' Polar Bear Habitat in Arctic

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Agence France Presse

US Designates 'Critical' Polar Bear Habitat in Arctic

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Nearly 95 per cent of the habitat being designated for polar bears is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The bears are considered a threatened species. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

WASHINGTON — The US government on Wednesday designated "critical
habitat" for polar bears who live on Alaska's disappearing sea ice, a
move that could impact new oil and gas drilling projects in the Arctic.

The
Fish and Wildlife Service set aside 187,000 square miles (484,000
square kilometers) off Alaska as the threatened bears' habitat, which
means any project that could impact the animals' way of life must
undergo careful review.

"This critical habitat designation
enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within
its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations," said Tom
Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks.

"Nevertheless,
the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of its sea ice
habitat caused by human-induced climate change. We will continue to
work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this
iconic species."

The move falls short of barring any drilling or
other activity in the area, but "identifies geographic areas containing
features considered essential for the conservation of the bear that
require special management or protection."

US environmental
advocates earlier this month warned that polar bear habitats could be
disrupted if oil companies eager to exploit the Arctic for fuel were to
experience an accidental spill like the BP gusher in the Gulf of Mexico.

The
Fish and Wildlife Service acknowledged that the designation, which
includes swaths of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas off northern Alaska,
"encompass(es) areas where oil and gas exploration activities are known
to occur."

Any activity there would now have to undergo a review
to "identify ways to implement these actions consistent with species
conservation," the statement said.

"This applies to oil and gas
development activities, as well as any other activity within the range
of the polar bear that may have an adverse affect on the species."

The
United States has classified the polar bear as "threatened," but not
endangered, due to the struggles it endures because the sea ice on
which it lives and hunts is melting due to climate change.

The US
government is considering opening the Chukchi Sea, a body of water off
the coast of Alaska that is shared with Russia, to drilling but is
reviewing leases awarded in 2008 after a lawsuit by indigenous people
and green groups contended that the government does not have enough
facts about how drilling will impact the environment.

Companies
like Royal Dutch Shell want to begin drilling in the coming months,
once winter ice begins to break up, and are submitting proposals to
show they can meet tougher new government regulations.

The US
Geological Survey said in 2008 that within the Arctic circle there are
90 billion barrels of oil and vast quantities of natural gas waiting to
be tapped, most of it offshore.

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