Designated critical habitat for Alaskan polar bears offers no protection from thick spring ice deaths

The Obama administration is apparently attempting to overturn a previous ruling that rejected proposed Alaskan “critical habitat” for polar bears in 2013 – as if “critical habitat” would protect the bears from the repeated episodes of thick spring ice that develop in this region every 10 years or so.

Polar_Bear_male on sea ice_Alaska Katovik Regehr photo_April 29, 2005_sm labeled

According to a Reuters report today (5 May 2015):

Seeking to reverse a ruling throwing out its designation of critical habitat for polar bears, the Obama administration has defended its decision to list large swathes of the Arctic as necessary for the conservation of the threatened species.

A coalition of oil industry groups and Alaska Natives, represented by Stoel Rives and Holland & Hart, successfully persuaded the U.S. District Court for Alaska to vacate the government’s polar bear habitat designation in 2013.” [my bold]

If they succeed, it would put most of the north coast of Alaska under special ESA rules, as the map below shows (click to enlarge).

Critical habitat Polar Bears US_NorthSlopeOrg map_labeled_PolarBearScience

As I commented previously, regarding the Obama administration’s recommendation to congress that they approve a proposed Arctic wildlife refuge area on Alaska’s North Slope, this move (if implemented) would not protect polar bears from the starvation deaths due to thick spring ice conditions that have occurred in this region for 2-3 years out of every 10 since 1960 at least.

The other issue is how much additional, biologically meaningful protection a critical habitat designation would provide for Southern Beaufort and Chukchi Sea polar bears – over and above that already provided by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Four issues are important here, three of which I’ve covered in detail previously:

1) The acknowledged primary cause of polar bear mortality in the Southern Beaufort is a phenomenon of cyclical periods of thick spring sea ice (lasting 2-3 years), that develop in nearshore areas every 10 years or so (documented since the 1960s): Great polar bear red herring in the Southern Beaufort (July 4 2013) and more recently, Polar bear biologists try – again – to blame S. Beaufort thick spring ice on global warming (February 13, 2015)

2) Relatively few Southern Beaufort polar bears spend their time near shore in Alaska (with references): Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska won’t protect polar bears from thick spring ice (January 25, 2015)

3) The US has a uniquely aggressive attitude towards designating Arctic marine mammals as ‘threatened with extinction’:  ‘Threatened’ Arctic species comparison shows USA most assertive about global warming  (December 31, 2014)

4) Few people realize that the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 already offers a massive amount of protection to polar bears (considered a marine mammal): the MMPA assumed ALL marine mammals are, or may be, at risk of extinction due to human activities.

Wikipedia’s summary [my bold]:

“Congress found that: all species and population stocks of marine mammals are, or may be, in danger of extinction or depletion due to human activities; these mammals should not be permitted to diminish below their optimum sustainable population; measures should be taken immediately to replenish any of these mammals that have diminished below that level, and efforts should be made to protect essential habitats; there is inadequate knowledge of the ecology and population dynamics of these mammals; negotiations should be undertaken immediately to encourage international arrangements for research and conservation of these mammals.

Congress declared that marine mammals are resources of great international significance (aesthetic, recreational and economic), and should be protected and encouraged to develop to the greatest extent feasible commensurate with sound policies of resource management.

The primary management objective should be to maintain the health and stability of the marine ecosystem.

The goal is to obtain an optimum sustainable population within the carrying capacity of the habitat.

Details on the Marine Mammal Protection Act: NOAA fact sheet; NOAA’s list of MMPA text; Pdf of Marine Mammal Protection Act 1972

Figure 1. US polar bear protected habitat, the big picture (from North Slope Org website).

Figure 1. US polar bear protected habitat, the big picture (from North Slope Org website). Click to enlarge.

It seems a few influential people believe that the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 has so far provided insufficient protection for polar bears and cannot be counted on to do so in the future. However, the sad fact is, neither the old act or a new ESA mandated critical habitat designation can protect polar bears from the large number of deaths by starvation they suffer due to thick spring ice conditions every 10 years or so in this region.

See also:

“U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Announces Final Designation of Polar Bear Critical Habitat” (USFWS press release; November 24, 2010)

US Fish & Wildlife Service:

“On January 10, 2013, the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska issued an order vacating and remanding to the Service our December 7, 2010, Final Rule designating critical habitat for the polar bear. Therefore, at this time, there is no critical habitat designated for the polar bear. [my bold]

“Win for Alaska: Court Rules Polar Bear Critical Habitat Designation Overreached Mandate” (Press release; January 15, 2013)

“Polar Bear Habitat Proposed for Alaska” (New York Times, October 22, 2009; see map provided with article (Fig. 2, below), showing the overlap between the Chukchi Sea and Southern Beaufort polar bear ranges along the north coast of Alaska)

 Figure 2. Chukchi Sea and Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear habitat overlaps along much of the north coast of Alaska (about 1/2 of "critical habitat" designated: map accompanying "Polar Bear Habitat Proposed for Alaska" (New York Times, October 22, 2009)


Figure 2. Chukchi Sea and Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear habitat overlaps along much of the north coast of Alaska (about 1/2 of “critical habitat” designated: map accompanying “Polar Bear Habitat Proposed for Alaska” (New York Times, October 22, 2009). Click to enlarge.

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