Polar bears’ Arctic home in Alaska will be designated as a “critical habitat,” the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said last week. The zone encompasses approximately 187,000 square miles of onshore barrier islands, denning areas, and offshore sea ice.
“The critical habitat designation clearly identifies the areas that need to be protected if the polar bear is to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic,” said Brendan Cummings, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement.
The final designation of critical habitat includes three areas. The habitats are barrier island (coastal barrier islands and spits along Alaska’s coast); sea ice (areas over the continental shelf used for refuge from humans); and terrestrial denning (lands within 20 miles of the northern coast of Alaska between the Canadian border and the Kavik River). An estimated 96 percent of the sea ice habitat is designated as critical habitat.
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the Department of the Interior is considering if oil companies will be allowed to drill for oil in the bears' critical habitat in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska.
President Obama halted drilling plans earlier this year, when he shut down offshore drilling in many areas of U.S. coastal waters in response to the BP oil spill.
The Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea are the only places in U.S. territory with polar bear populations and thus provide “critical habitat” for the polar bears, according to FWS. There are about 1,500 polar bears in the South Beaufort Sea, and the population of the Chukchi Sea is unknown.