187,000 Square Miles Designated as Polar Bear Critical Habitat in Alaska

For Immediate Release


Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 366-2232 x 304, bcummings@biologicaldiversity.org
Melanie Duchin, Greenpeace, (907) 227-2700, melanie.duchin@greenpeace.org
Andrew Wetzler, Natural Resources Defense Council, (312) 651-7902, awetzler@nrdc.org

187,000 Square Miles Designated as Polar Bear Critical Habitat in Alaska

WASHINGTON - More than 187,000
square miles (approximately 120 million acres) along the north coast of
Alaska were designated today as “critical habitat” for the polar bear as a
result of a partial settlement in an ongoing lawsuit brought by the Center
for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and
Greenpeace against the Department of the Interior. This designation under
the Endangered Species Act is intended to safeguard those coastal lands and
waters under U.S.
jurisdiction that are vital to the polar bears’ survival and

The habitat rule comes at a critical juncture for the
polar bear. The Interior Department is under court order to reconsider by
Dec. 23 elements of its 2008 decision to list the polar bear as
“threatened,” rather than the more protective
“endangered” — a decision that could affect whether the
Endangered Species Act can be used as a tool to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions, the primary threat to the species. At the same time, the
Interior Department is also considering whether to allow oil companies to
drill for oil in the polar bear’s newly designated critical habitat
in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska.

“The critical habitat designation clearly
identifies the areas that need to be protected if the polar bear is to
survive in a rapidly melting Arctic,”
said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel with the Center for Biological
Diversity. “However, unless the Interior Department starts to take
seriously its mandate to actually protect the polar bear’s critical
habitat, we will be writing the species’ obituary rather than its
recovery plan.”

Federal agencies are prohibited from taking any actions
that may harm or damage — the legal term is “adversely
modify” — critical habitat.   Species that have
critical habitat designated are more than twice as likely to be recovering,
and less than half as likely to be declining, as those without it.

“Polar bears are slipping away,” said Andrew
Wetzler, Director of NRDC's Land and Wildlife Program. “But we know
that there are crucial protections that can keep them around. Today’s
designation is a start, especially in warding off ill-considered oil and
gas development in America’s
most important polar bear habitat.”

In May 2008, the Interior Department listed the polar
bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. At the same
time, Interior issued a special rule exempting greenhouse gas emissions
from being regulated as a result of the listing. A court challenge to this
regulation by the Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC and Greenpeace is

“Designating polar bear critical habitat is a good
first step toward protecting this species,” said Melanie Duchin, a
Greenpeace campaigner in Anchorage,
Alaska. “However, as
long as the secretary of the interior maintains that he can do nothing
about greenhouse emissions and global warming, protections for the polar
bear will ultimately be ineffective.”

Scientists have made it clear that polar bears need help
soon. Global warming is melting the sea ice the bears depend on to hunt,
mate and raise cubs. If current greenhouse gas trends continue, scientists
predict two-thirds of the world’s polar bears — including all
the bears in Alaska
— will probably be gone in 40 years and possibly well before then.


At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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