A coalition of native tribes from Alaska has been formed to fight the plans to protect 187,000 square miles of Alaska for Polar Bear habitat. The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) and other native groups have served a 60 day notification on the US Department of the Interior informing them of their intent to file a court case. This follows on from a similar notice served by the State of Alaska in December.
The coalition is concerned that the designation of the land on the North Slope will deprive it and local people of being able to exploit the resources in the area. They claim that billions of dollars could be lost to the local economy and people if the plans went ahead.
Since the polar bear was designated as an endangered species in 2008 under the Endangered Species Act the government has had to consider plans to help stop further losses of the animal. Part of this plan is the designation of the North Slope as protected land to halt the loss of habitat which is one of the greatest threats to the species. The coalition points out however that the lost of habitat is not caused by developments of the land but by climate change. Protecting the land will do nothing to counter the effects of climate change and will not stop the loss of conditions on the land that polar bears need to survive.
The critical habitat land covers land in and around near the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The most critical part of this area for the polar bears is the sea ice and this will not be protected just by designation if nothing is done to combat the cause of the sea ice melt. Native people fear that the designation will restrict the normal growth of their villages and will also prevent them from accessing their normal hunting grounds – the Chukchi Sea is an important hunting ground.
The North Slope is an important source of oil and gas for the US – currently supplying around 17% of it’s requirements. The new designation will not halt further development of drilling though it will make it much more difficult for companies to operate. While it is still an important source of oil, the reserves are now in decline and further exploitation will need drilling in the protected areas.
Some of the native organisations – such as The Arctic Slope – involved in the coalition are known to support and work with the oil and gas industry but some of the members have also campaigned against oil drilling. The Department of the Interior don’t just have the pro-oil and native people to deal with. Wildlife NGO, Center for Biological Diversity, also plan to sue the department because they claim that the designated critical habitat is not going to sufficiently protected from offshore drilling.
While some studies and campaigners claim that over half the polar bears will be lost within 40 years and none will be left in Alaska by 2050, most accepted figures are estimating a lost of around 30% over the next 45 years due to changes in the sea ice of the Arctic. It is difficult though to forecast how polar bears will react to diminishing sea ice as they have survived previous periods of ice free climate through adaption.
There’s thought to be anything between 20,000 and 25,000 polar bears in the arctic wilderness.