The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Thursday announced a proposal to designate 200,541 square miles along the coast of Alaska as critical habitat for
the polar bear.
“This Administration is fully committed to the protection and recovery of the polar bear,” said
Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland. “Proposing critical
habitat for this iconic species is one step in the right direction to help this species stave off
extinction, recognizing that the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of Arctic sea ice
caused by climate change. 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.”
habitat proposal identifies habitat in three separate areas or units: barrier island habitat, sea ice
habitat and terrestrial denning habitat. The total area is entirely within the lands and waters of the United States. Barrier island habitat includes
coastal barrier islands and spits along Alaska’s coast, and is used for denning, refuge from
human disturbances, access to maternal dens and feeding habitat, as well as travel along the
Sea ice habitat is located over the continental shelf, and includes water 300 meters and less in
depth. Terrestrial denning habitat includes lands within 32 km (about 20 miles) of the northern
coast of Alaska between the Canadian border and the Kavik River and within 8 km (about 5
miles) between the Kavik River and Barrow.
Polar bears evolved for life in the harsh arctic environment, and are distributed throughout most
ice-covered seas of the Northern Hemisphere. They are generally limited to areas where the sea
is ice-covered for much of the year; however, they are not evenly distributed throughout their
range. They are most abundant near the shore in shallow-water areas, and in other places where
currents and ocean upwelling increases marine productivity and maintains some open water
during the ice-covered season.
Polar bears are completely dependent upon Arctic sea-ice habitat for survival. They use sea ice
as a platform to hunt and feed upon seals, as a habitat on which to seek mates and breed, as a
platform to move to onshore maternity denning areas, and make long-distance movements, and
occasionally for maternity denning. Most populations use onshore habitat partially or exclusively
for maternity denning.
Throughout most of their range, polar bears remain on the sea ice year-round or spend only short
periods on land.
There are two polar bear populations that occur in the U.S.; the Chukchi Sea
population and the Southern Beaufort Sea population. Internationally, they also occur throughout
the East Siberian, Laptev, and Kara Seas of Russia; Fram Strait and Greenland Sea; Barents Sea
of northern Europe; Baffin Bay, which separates Canada and Greenland; through most of the
Canadian Arctic archipelago; and in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas located to the west and north
The polar bear was listed as threatened, range-wide, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) on May 14, 2008, due to loss
of sea ice habitat caused by climate change. Other threats evaluated at that time included impacts
from activities such as oil and gas operations, subsistence harvest, shipping and tourism. No
other impacts were considered as significant in the decline but minimizing effects from these
activities could become increasingly important for polar bears as their numbers decline.
The ESA requires that, to the maximum extent possible, the Secretary of the Interior designate
critical habitat at the time the species is listed. However, the Service determined additional time
was needed to conduct a thorough evaluation and peer review of a potential critical habitat
designation and thus did not publish a proposed designation concurrent with the final listing rule.
As part of the settlement of a subsequent lawsuit brought by a group of conservation
organizations, the Department of the Interior agreed to publish a final rule designating critical
habitat for the polar bear no later than June 30, 2010. Thursday’s announcement is a step toward
fulfilling the terms of that agreement.
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 areas of proposed critical habitat do encompass areas where oil and gas exploration activities
are known to occur. Section 7 of the ESA requires federal agencies to ensure that the activities
they authorize, fund or carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the
species or to destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat. If a federal action may affect the
polar bear or its critical habitat, the permitting or action agency must enter into consultation with
the Service. 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 effect on the species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will now open a 60-day public comment period on the measure.