Court upholds designation of polar bear critical habitat
Polar bears face enormous threats from climate change and melting sea ice, but their Arctic habitat will receive some needed protection, thanks to a new decision last week from a federal appellate court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of more than 120 million acres as critical habitat for the imperiled polar bear.
Polar bears spend much of their time on Arctic sea ice, often hundreds of miles from land. They rely on this habitat to travel, hunt and raise their young. Critical habitat is so important to the survival and recovery of polar bears, which are struggling to survive as their habitat melts from beneath their feet. Studies have shown that species with designated critical habitat do better than those without. So when the Service designated critical habitat for the polar bear in 2010, Defenders offered our strong support.
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But the polar bear’s habitat protection was short lived. Concerned that the designation could impact oil and gas drilling, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the state of Alaska challenged the designation of lands in the state. At their request, a District Court judge in Alaska struck down the habitat rule in 2013.
Defenders and our partners went back to court to help get the judge’s decision overturned. And we won! With this victory, some 187,000 square miles of Arctic Alaska’s coastal areas and barrier islands will again receive some protection.
Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies must ensure that any actions they authorize or approve will not adversely modify designated critical habitat. So the court’s decision to reinstate this crucial protection will help ensure that federal actions will not add to the polar bear’s plight.
Critical habitat does not, however, always stop activities that could be harmful to polar bears. And, unfortunately, the Obama administration continues to allow some oil and gas leasing in polar bear habitat. So while our latest court victory is most welcome, polar bears need more. The long-term survival of this iconic species will depend on strong policies to prevent oil and gas development in sensitive areas, and to combat the effects of climate change.
Protect Polar Bears
An oil spill in the Arctic could be devastating, especially for animals like polar bears that are already feeling pressure from climate change. Ask officials to take immediate action to address this threat!