Alaska Challenges Obama's Polar Bear Habitat Designation

Commentary by H. Sterling Burnett

Source: Environment and Climate News

Alaska state officials are objecting to the Obama administration's decision to list more than 187,000 square miles-almost the entire U.S. polar bear population's range-as critical habitat. Critical habitat is defined as an area containing features essential to the conservation of species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The Bush administration set the stage for the move by determining the polar bear's long-term survival was threatened by a decline in sea ice-which is critical bear habitat during certain seasons-allegedly caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide. Since the Bush administration's determination, however, Arctic sea ice has grown by approximately 25 percent and Southern Hemisphere sea ice has expanded to a record extent.

Energy Production Threatened
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is taking comments during a 60-day public review period on its critical habitat designation. Unless FWS modifies its recommendation, Alaska state officials fear the oil and gas industry, a vital component of the state's economy and U.S. domestic energy production, will be shut down.

Marilyn Crockett, director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, argues restrictions on development within the area designated as critical habitat will cause lengthy production delays and cost millions in consultation and legal fees, making oil and gas production prohibitively expensive.

Former Governor Sarah Palin sued FWS in 2008, arguing the service had not responded to Alaska's concerns in a timely manner before listing the polar bear as threatened. Current Governor Sean Parnell (R) shares the former governor's concern. His administration has characterized the habitat designation as an attempt by environmental activists within the  Bush and Obama administrations to shut down resource development along Alaska's Northern coast.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game likewise opposes the Obama administration's expansive designation of critical habitat. The Department argues FWS did not balance the potential economic costs against the protection's benefits, as required by law.

Alaska's state budget could be diminished by the proposed change because any projects cancelled or not pursued as a result of the additional regulatory burdens and development uncertainties would cause a loss of jobs and diminished or delayed tax and royalty revenues.

Alarmism vs. Science
Since the 1970s, polar bear populations have increased dramatically, more than doubling in number. Polar bears have survived in temperatures warmer than at present, including the medieval warm period 1000 years ago and the Holocene Climate Optimum between 5,000 and 9,000 years ago.

"Humans are having no impact on polar ice caps, which have not declined at all in recent decades and are more extensive than they were in the 1940s," said Heartland Institute Science Director Jay Lehr.

"This is a classic example of unsubstantiated alarmist claims clashing with real-world science. Polar sea ice is not shrinking, and polar bear numbers are growing. There is no justification for listing polar bears under the Endangered Species Act and shutting down energy production as a result of critical habitat designations," Lehr said.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., (Sterling.Burnett@ncpa.org) is a senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis.