The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a prime denning area for Alaska's polar bears.

© Daniel J. Cox/Natural Exposures

12/13/2017 5:17:06 PM

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

By Dr. Steven Amstrup, Chief Scientist

A prime denning area for Alaska’s polar bears could open up to oil drilling if a provision in the U.S. tax bill makes it into the final plan. The wilderness region, often called America’s Serengeti, is known for its polar bears, caribou, muskoxen, and migratory birds. For anyone who cares about wildlife, the likely impacts from drilling are a grave concern.

The ANWR coastal plain is vitally important to polar bears. Pregnant female polar bears head to this area every fall to create snow dens where they give birth to their young. In fact, the region has higher concentrations of polar bear maternal denning habitat than other coastal areas on Alaska’s North Slope. In recent years, the ANWR has become even more important as a polar bear denning site because the deterioration of historically stable sea ice in the Beaufort Sea has forced more polar bears to den onshore, rather than risk giving birth on unstable ice. 

While it might be possible to explore for and develop ANWR’s oil and gas with minimal wildlife impacts, a hastily developed tax plan proposed by an administration that favors no regulatory safeguards for humans or wildlife fosters little optimism that such a possibility could be realized. 

In addition to the ANWR’s importance as a critical denning area for polar bears, the region faces profound impacts from climate change unless we transition away from fossil fuels.

Warmer temperatures mean less sea ice habitat, which polar bears rely on to catch their seal prey. In addition, encouraging more fossil fuel usage, as opening the ANWR would do, will only add to ongoing global warming. 

If we continue to follow a “business as usual” reliance on fossil fuels, average annual temperatures in Alaska’s Arctic are projected to be more than 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) higher, at century’s end, than they are now. Such high temperatures would assure ice-free summers in the Arctic, with devastating impacts on polar bears and other Arctic wildlife.  And, of course, ramifications reach the rest of life on Earth—including humans.

With “on the ground” drilling activities posing a threat to polar bear denning sites, and prolonged reliance on fossil fuels continuing to melt the sea ice polar bears need to catch their prey, oil and gas development in the ANWR would serve a double whammy. Opening the ANWR to drilling, therefore, is a path we should avoid—for the sake of polar bears, our children, and our grandchildren.  

Regardless of what happens with this bill, efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development are far from over, and Polar Bears International will continue to do everything we can to mitigate negative outcomes for polar bears.

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