In fulfillment of a judicial agreement with conservation groups, the Department of Interior (DOI) has issued a final rule designating more than 187,000 square miles of critical habitat for the threatened polar bear. The designated habitat comprises both barrier islands and sea ice along the northern and western shores of Alaska.
Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), federal agencies that undertake, fund, or permit activities that may affect critical habitat of an ESA-listed species are required to consult with DOI’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) or the Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service to ensure that such actions do not adversely modify or destroy critical habitat of ESA-listed species.
Nonfederal entities, including private landowners, will be affected only when actions they engage in have an official relationship or nexus with the federal government.
The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area. Neither does the designation allow government or the public access to private lands.
The polar bear obtained protection under the ESA in May 2008 due to loss of sea ice habitat. At that time, DOI said it did not have sufficient data to make a critical habitat designation.
A lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace resulted in a judicial order that DOI make the designation.
Polar bears are completely dependent on Arctic sea-ice habitat for survival. DOI has explicitly attributed the loss of sea ice to the effects of climate change.
The final rule excludes U.S. Air Force radar sites, the native communities of Barrow and Kaktovik, and all existing man-made structures (regardless of land ownership status) from the critical habitat.
The designated habitat also includes oil and gas exploration areas. Activities such as federal permitting of oil and gas exploration in these areas, which may adversely affect the polar bear, are subject to the federal consultation process.