A polar bear mom with cubs.

The denning period is the most vulnerable time period in the polar bear's life cycle.

11/19/2020 10:14:16 PM

Arctic Refuge Lease Sales Threaten Polar Bears

November 19, 2020 (Bozeman, Montana) – As far back as people can remember, polar bear moms with cubs have sheltered in snow dens on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a stunningly beautiful ecosystem often called Alaska’s Serengeti.

But as the clock ticks down on the Trump administration, the White House has announced plans to push through oil and gas lease sales in this critical denning area before President-elect Biden takes office.

The decision ignores decades of research on the vulnerability of denning polar bear families and puts polar bears in the threatened Southern Beaufort Sea population directly in harm’s way.

“Rushing through with lease sales in the Arctic Refuge despite the risks to an already struggling polar bear population goes against sound science and precautionary management,” said Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International. “This is a population where every den matters. We must give moms and cubs the protection they deserve.”

Research by Dr. Amstrup and others shows that because of global warming induced sea ice loss, the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population has declined by over 40% since the 1980s, with cub survival rates only about half of historic levels. The undisturbed coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is critical to the reproduction and long-term survival of these at-risk bears.

“Pregnant polar bears dig dens in snow drifts that form in autumn,” said Geoff York, senior director of conservation for Polar Bears International. “They give birth in mid-winter and remain in their dens until spring when their cubs are finally large enough to survive the rigors of outside Arctic conditions. Denning polar bears are unable to simply move away from a disturbance because newborn cubs cannot survive winter conditions outside the warmth of the maternal den.”

Polar bears are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has concluded that protecting denning bears is vital to population management and recovery and has designated the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain as critical habitat for denning polar bears. Allowing oil and gas activity to go forward in this area would be inconsistent with the polar bear’s threatened status and with approved recovery plan objectives. 

Existing data indicate that oil and gas activity following lease sales is likely to reduce polar bear cub survival rates and possibly those of mother bears as well. In addition to these on-the-ground risks, pushing forward with oil and gas development will add to the climate warming that gravely threatens polar bears across the Arctic. Instead of increasing our reliance on fossil fuels, we should be investing in renewable energy and coming together on climate solutions—solutions that will help polar bears and people. 

“Any decisions affecting the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge must be based on science, and the science is clear: these proposed activities would pose an unacceptable risk to an already imperiled polar bear population,” Amstrup said.

Polar Bears International is dedicated to conserving polar bears and the sea ice they depend on. We also work to inspire people to care about the Arctic and its connection to our global climate. 

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