Tag Archives: critical habitat

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.
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‘Threatened’ status for Arctic ringed seals under ESA makes no sense

Recent research (Crawford and Quakenbush 203; Rode et al. 2014) has shown that sea ice declines in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas have made life better for ringed seals, not worse (as predicted) – ringed seals are in better condition and reproducing better than they were in the 1970s. Why? Ringed seals do most of their feeding in the open-water period (Young and Ferguson 2013), so a longer open-water season means fatter, healthier seals and more fat pups for polar bears to hunt the following spring.

Ringed_seal_2_NOAA

However, Arctic ringed seals (as well as bearded seals) were designated as ‘threatened’ by the USA in 2012 under the Endangered Species Act, based on predicted ice and snow declines due to prophesied global warming. These listings are all about future threats, with no pretense of on-going harm.

Virtually no other Arctic nation has taken this step for Arctic seals — see previous discussion here. There are lots of ringed seals — an estimated 3-4 million world-wide and about 1.7 million within the critical habitat proposed by NOAA (see below).

As weak as the case for listing polar bears as ‘threatened’ has proven to be, the case for listing ringed and bearded seals is even more feeble (a judge has already sent the bearded seal listing back to the drawing board).
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