Polar Bears Get Protected Habitat

Obama Administration earmarks over 200,000 square miles of Alaska as protected polar bear habitat--but not everyone is happy about it

Polar bears finally have a place of their own—for now.

Last Thursday, the day after Alaskan Governor Sean Parnell filed a complaint in an effort to have polar bears delisted as threatened under the 2008 Endangered Species Act, the Obama Administration announced a decision to allow the Department of Interior to allocate more than 200,000 square miles of Alaska and its coastal waters as “critical habitat” for the polar bear population. Under a critical habitat designation, the federal government prohibits any activity that threatens the protected species.

“The Administration is fully committed to the protection and recovery of the polar bear,” Interior Assistant Tom Strickland was quoted as saying in a U.S. Fish and Wildlife news release. “As we move forward with comprehensive climate strategy, we will continue to work to protect the polar bear and its fragile environment.”

Environmental organizations around the country have also applauded the administration’s bold decision, calling it necessary action.

Here’s what the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had to say about it:

"Designation of critical habitat affords important protections to the polar bear, a species imperiled by dramatic changes in its sea ice environment," says Geoff York, senior program officer for Polar Bear Conservation at WWF. "As sea ice habitat shrinks, it becomes increasingly important to protect areas that are crucial for the bears' survival."

But not everyone is psyched for polar bear protection. Earlier in the week, Governor Parnell’s department filed a brief with the federal court to overturn the polar bear’s status as a threatened species (Sarah Palin, his predecessor, filed a similar complaint in 2008 protesting the bear’s protected status). The N.Y Times reported that Parnell is the third consecutive Alaskan governor to oppose polar bear protection.

Why no polar bear love, Alaska?

Critical protection of Alaskan coastal areas will likely slow and potentially threaten the development of offshore oil and gas mining. Gov. Parnell has flat-out said that he opposes polar bear’s protection as a threatened species, and cites Alaska’s history of balancing wildlife protection and development as adequate. The governor also went so far as to accuse the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service of acting illegally by listing polar bears as threatened.

“Currently, some are attempting to improperly use the Endangered Species Act to shut down resource development, and I’m not going to let this happen on my watch,” Mr. Parnell was quoted as saying in the N.Y. Times.

Yikes. Since it doesn’t look like Gov. Parnell is going to back down, and the Obama Administration has just communicated their commitment to protecting polar bears, the fate of polar bears probably won't get decided anytime soon. Enjoy your your icy address while you can, polar bears—but don't get too comfortable.

––Jessie Lucier

Photo Credit: Just Being

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