Earlier this week, it was reported that Shell Oil Company had been granted permission to start drilling exploratory offshore wells in the area of the Beaufort Sea. It was also revealed that renowned marine scientist and conservationist Rick Steiner had been dropped from a federal grant and evicted from his office at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks for being critical of what he considered to be irresponsible oil company proposals, projects and activities in Alaska.
Now, in an unexpected and somewhat contradictory move by the Interior Department, the US government has proposed the designation of “more than 200,000 square miles of land, sea and ice along the northern coast of Alaska as critical habitat for the shrinking polar bear population” (NY Times).
Environmentalists have repeatedly pointed to shrinking areas of sea ice as proof that climate change was contributing directly to the threat of extinction for an already dwindling polar bear population.
“In May 2008 the Interior Department declared, under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, that the polar bear was threatened with extinction. The Bush administration found that the bears’ habitat was shrinking because of melting ice, along with commercial activities like shipping, oil and gas operations, hunting and tourism” (NY Times).
Despite the fact that the government is now acknowledging that it is important to set aside land for polar bears, the habitat proposal is weak and won’t do anything to prevent industrial developers from disturbing the almost 3,500 bears that would live there.
Thomas L. Strickland, assistant interior secretary for fish, wildlife and parks commented that “the bears’ habitat was not being set aside as a refuge and that oil and gas exploration and other activities could continue under the terms of the species act and other laws.”
This has many wildlife advocates wondering, “What’s the point?”
Although the polar bear has been listed on the Engangered Species list since last year, the Interior Department has still failed to set aside critical habitat for their protection, which is required by law. This proposal fails to impress those who have been criticizing the government for the lack of action, and it is being pegged as a half-hearted attempt to fulfill the law without truly protecting the polar bears.
“If polar bears are to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic, we need to protect their critical habitat, not turn it into a polluted industrial zone,” said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Interior Department is schizophrenic, declaring its intent to protect polar bear habitat in the Arctic, yet simultaneously sacrificing that habitat to feed our unsustainable addiction to oil.”
Image Credit: psc.apl.washington.edu