A polar bear mom grooms her cub

© Shannon Curtis/Polar Bears International

8/18/2020 3:03:28 PM

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Lease Sales Threaten Denning Polar Bears

(Bozeman, Montana) – The White House announced plans yesterday to greenlight oil and gas lease sales on the Coastal Plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a key denning area for polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea population. The decision ignores decades of research on the vulnerability of denning polar bear families and puts one of the world’s most threatened polar bear populations directly in harm’s way.

“This is a population where every single den matters,” said Krista Wright, executive director of Polar Bears International. “The Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears have declined by nearly half since the 1980s, with very low cub survival rates. The Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge is critical to the reproduction and long-term survival of these bears. To rush through oil and gas lease sales while downplaying the risks to an already struggling polar bear population is alarming and reckless.”

Polar Bears International scientists and colleagues have a long history of studying polar bear dens and den-detection methods in northern Alaska. Last year, PBI’s chief scientist, Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, testified to Congress about the importance of the Refuge to denning polar bear families, based on his decades of research. 

Pregnant polar bears dig dens in snow drifts that form in autumn. 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. While denning, polar bears are unable to simply move away from a disturbance without substantial risk to newborn cubs.

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 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 recovery objectives.

The White House plan states that it would evaluate lease sales in the Refuge on a project-by-project basis, but the rigor is unclear.

“That approach is analogous to adding more people to a small boat,” said Geoff York, senior director of conservation at Polar Bears International. “Incremental additions work just fine, until the weight of the passengers suddenly exceeds the boat’s capacity and it sinks.

“In our case, the boat is the capacity polar bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea have for the totality of changes they are currently experiencing. Taking away the one last large area without human activity while concurrently adding risk and uncertainty to the most critical aspect of reproduction—denning—are serious additions to an already leaky boat.”

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. 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 threatened polar bear population.

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


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