© Dan Guravich/Polar Bears International.

3/14/2016 3:17:38 PM

A Win for the Polar Bears

Alaska's polar bears have cause for celebration: The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to designate more than 187 million square miles of northern Alaska's marine waters and coast as critical habitat for polar bears. The ruling overturns a 2013 lower court decision that ruled in a favor of a challenge by the state of Alaska and other litigants. 

The designation is part of the USFWS's recovery plan for polar bears, which were listed as a threatened species in 2008 under the Endangered Species Act. The critical habitat outlined in the plan includes polar bear denning areas near the coast and on barrier islands, along with sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The area in question is enormous, with 96% of it offshore. Dr. Steven Amstrup, PBI's chief scientist, said the designated boundary takes into consideration polar bear mobility requirements as well as their preferred habitats. 

"My early work showed that polar bears are incredibly mobile, with individual activity areas often as large as Montana," said PBI's chief scientist, Dr. Steven Amstrup. "They live at relatively low densities across very large areas. Our work also has shown that polar bears prefer sea ice over the near shore shallow waters of the continental shelf."

The designated critical habitat is important as a symbolic gesture, but may not change much for day to day management said PBI's senior director of conservation, Geoff York. 

"Polar bears are already protected under the Endangered Species Act," he said, "and any proposed industrial activity must take their habitat into consideration with or without this designation. Still, it adds another step to the process and leads to more in-depth analysis of proposed projects within polar bear habitat."

York added that the critical habitat designation does not impact subsistence activities by Alaska Native communities.

In the long run, though, establishing a boundary of critical habitat will not protect the sea ice from rising temperatures.

"If greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise, any area of mapped polar bear habitat soon will not have sufficient ice to support polar bears, and hence will soon not be habitat at all," said Amstrup.

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