Polar bears were first listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as threatened in 2008, marking the first time a marine mammal gained protection because of the likelihood climate change will bring about their extinction.
Two years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) moved to designate 187,000 square miles as critical habitat, which includes barrier islands along Alaska’s coast, denning areas on land and offshore sea-ice.
At the time, the agency noted that polar bears are completely dependent on sea ice for survival, which they use to hunt, find mates and breed, travel long distances and sometimes den. Unfortunately, it’s continued to disappear, hitting a record low this year. Some scientists predict that most of the world’s polar bears will be extinct by 2050 as Arctic sea ice continues to melt.
Despite knowing what a precarious situation polar bears are in, and how important critical habitat is for endangered species, the Alaska Oil & Gas Association and the state of Alaska challenged the designation in court, arguing that it was an overreach, and they won.
This week, however, conservationists are celebrating a ruling handed down by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that overturns their victory and upholds the designation.
“This is a critical victory for polar bears at a time when there’s huge momentum on fighting climate change,” said Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The ruling strengthens the Endangered Species Act and affirms the commonsense idea that you can’t protect imperiled animals without protecting the places they live. This decision gives polar bears some breathing room, but President Obama and other leaders still have to move fast to leave dirty fossil fuels in the ground to provide this species and so many others a true shot at survival.”
As the Center pointed out in a statement, even with the designation and Shell announcing that it would end oil exploration in the Arctic, the Interior has moved forward with plans that will allow oil companies to drill in their habitat, putting vulnerable polar bears and other species at risk.
“Polar bears are a keystone species of climate change impacts and we are glad to see the court recognize that the federal government was acting appropriately to protect them,” said Greenpeace Arctic campaign specialist John Deans. “However, this important species will only truly be protected if it means that these sensitive areas will be properly safeguarded from oil and gas development and coupled with strong policies to combat climate change.”
You can help keep polar bears and other wildlife in Alaska safe by signing and sharing the petition urging members of Congress to support and co-sponsor the Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling Act. This legislation will permanently stop the Department of the Interior from issuing or renewing leases for “the exploration, development, or production of oil, natural gas, or any other mineral in the Arctic Ocean.”
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