After the Deepwater Horizon tragedy in May 2010, federal, state agencies and conservation organizations have taken a critical look inward to see how under-prepared we all were to effectively respond to the spill and minimize the impacts to wildlife and their habitats. As with many tragedies, post-tragedy introspection leads to change that is badly needed to be better prepared next time.
Those of us who live and work in Alaska are keenly aware of what this magnificent state offers: breathtaking wild places and amazing wildlife along with extraordinary challenges. One of those yet-to be- resolved challenges is how to clean up oil spilled in the broken sea ice on or near Alaskan coasts. The Arctic’s dramatic and unpredictable weather, paired with the fact that arctic sea ice is diminishing, means that addressing an oil spill here will be a complex and difficult task. In addition, we can expect to see increased ship traffic and development, whether it is in our own waters or nearby neighboring countries. So an accident or spill could affect our wildlife even if we in Alaska had no development at all.
Polar bears are large animals. Male polar bears range in height (nose to tail) 8 to 9 feet and generally weigh up to1,320 lbs. Females range around 6 to 7 feet and are typically about half the weight of males. Because of their size and weight, caring for them in the event of a spill requires the right sized equipment and safety procedures to be in place. That is why Defenders partnered with the Marine Mammal Management staff in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to design and build polar bear-sized spill response holding modules. Unlike regular cages or kennels for large animals, these modules can be configured in various ways to safely hold different numbers of polar bears (such as an adult male or a mother and her cubs) or other marine mammals during a spill clean-up. They can also betransported to a spill response location. These modules allow trained personnel to safely house cleaned or unoiled animals while their family group members are being cleaned and treated close-by. This results in far less stress for the bears and less chance of injury or death as a result of transporting them by plane to distant wildlife response facilities. That also means that more healthy animals get released back into their habitats: Arctic coastal areas and sea ice.
Being prepared is vital so that when and if the call comes, we will be ready. Defenders works with partners on on-the-ground solutions in Alaska to reduce human-wildlife conflicts and to ensure that polar bears and other marine and land animals can thrive for many generations to come.
Karla Dutton, Alaska Program Director