Polar bear and cub in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.)
The polar bear is perhaps the most iconic victim of our warming planet.
In 2015, a heartbreaking image of a starving polar bear became a global symbol of the devastating impacts of climate change. Rising ocean temperatures are gradually robbing these bears of the sea ice that provides their hunting grounds and denning habitat. As the ice recedes, more and more bears are being forced to carve out a new life on the land, where they face a new set of dangers — including the potential disruption of their habitat to produce even more of the fossil fuels that are driving climate change.
The Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is critical habitat for polar bears — and is the subject of intense debate: to drill and extract, or preserve and protect.
The Coastal Plain has the highest concentration of onshore polar bear denning habitat in America’s Arctic. The deep snow drifts that accumulate in the shadows of its mountains provide denning sites for pregnant bears, and around 30 percent of all breeding females in the local polar bear population give birth and raise their cubs here. As a result, more than 75 percent of the area is designated as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act.
Map of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Source: Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources.
As the ice of the Southern Beaufort Sea continues to melt, forcing more and more bears onto the land, the Coastal Plain is likely to become even more critical. The polar bears that live here are already among the most vulnerable in the world. Between 2001 and 2010, their population plummeted by 40 percent, from around 1,500 to just 900. These dwindling numbers make it more important than ever that what remains of the delicate habitats in which they build their dens, reproduce and raise their young is preserved intact.
Since the Eisenhower administration, the bears that depend on these lands have been able to live and breed undisturbed, for the most part, by human activity. That may soon change. In December 2017, Congress passed legislation to open up the Coastal Plain to oil and gas exploration. In the Bureau of Land Management’s final environmental impact statement for the Coastal Plain Leasing Program, released in September 2019, the agency selected the most extreme and aggressive of several development options, offering up the entire Coastal Plain to the fossil fuel industry while incorporating the fewest provisions to protect the animals that depend on the Plain for their survival.
The administration’s plan calls for the construction of airstrips and well pads, 175 miles of roads, a network of oil pipelines, a seawater-treatment plant and a barge landing and storage site on the Plain. As the Trump administration pushes through the mandatory environmental reviews, fossil fuel companies are gearing up to conduct seismic testing in the Refuge to map out the oil and gas reserves assumed to lie beneath its surface.
Polar bears give birth in mid-winter and nurture their cubs in their dens until the spring when the cubs are strong enough to venture out into the world. Human disturbances risk forcing mothers to abandon their dens before their cubs are ready for the harsh Arctic winter. The introduction of heavy machinery and other industrial infrastructure into their fragile habitat will also disrupt the corridors that the bears need in order to travel to and from the coast to hunt. It also makes it likely that bears will be killed or injured when heavy vehicles run over undetected dens.
According to Dr. Steven Amstrup of Polar Bears International, these operations pose “substantial risks of death or serious injury” to denning polar bears and their cubs, in turn impacting polar bear population levels.
Polar bears are already classed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, meaning that they could soon run the risk of extinction if their habitat continues to be damaged, fragmented and destroyed. And as receding sea ice forces more bears onto the Coastal Plain, the urgency of protecting this landscape becomes far more acute.
Opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling is simply the wrong thing to do. This was true in the Eisenhower years, and it’s especially true in 2019, when clean renewable energy options are rapidly on the rise. We’re doing all we can to protect it.
Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America Research & Policy Center