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State Files Suit over Habitat Designation


March 15, 2011
Tuesday AM

(SitNews) – The State of Alaska filed suit last week against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) over what the State says is the USFWS' unprecedented, expansive designation of critical habitat for polar bears, which have been listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In a separate suit, the state is also challenging the May 2008 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list polar bears as threatened.

The State of Alaska says the designation of 187,157 square miles of critical habitat for the polar bear, an area larger than 48 of the 50 states, is unnecessary in that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service itself acknowledges that the designation will not provide substantial protection for the animals.

jpg Polar Bear

Polar Bear
Photo was taken along the Beaufort Sea Coastline of Alaska, October 2006.
By Susanne Miller, USFWS

In November 2010, the United States Department of the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated more than 187,000 square miles of barrier islands, on-shore denning areas, and offshore sea-ice as critical habitat for the threatened polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. The areas included in the critical habitat designation do encompass areas where oil and gas exploration activities are known to occur.

On October 29, 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to designate approximately 200,541 square miles as critical habitat for the polar bear. The final rule reduced this designation to 187,157 square miles, a reduction due mostly to corrections designed to accurately reflect the U.S. boundary for proposed sea ice habitat.

When the final designation of the polar bear critical habitat was announced, Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks said, "This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations." He said, “Nevertheless, the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of its sea ice habitat caused by human-induced climate change. We will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species.”

In its lawsuit, the State of Alaska also contends that the USFWS disregarded federal law by including geographical areas in the designation in which there is little or no evidence of physical or biological features that are essential to conservation of polar bears. For example, Norton Sound is included as critical sea ice habitat even though the mapping does not show the area even within the range of polar bears.

The state is also concerned with the apparent motive to designate the entire geographical area that could be occupied by the polar bear, rather than only those areas which are critical to its survival.

Governor Sean Parnell said, “We already have a comprehensive slate of state laws, the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and international agreements that provide strong conservation measures for polar bears. Parnell said, “The additional regulations, consultations, and likely litigation that would be triggered by this habitat designation would simply delay jobs, and increase the costs of, or even prevent, resource development projects that are crucial for the state. All this with no material improvement in polar bear habitat.”

Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell said, “This would be akin to designating the entire migratory pathway for a listed migratory bird species, including the air it might occupy. Such an approach is unprecedented and unwarranted.”

The state is also challenging the lack of consideration given to state comments submitted on the proposed rule and for failing to exclude areas with significant economic value.

“Federal officials disregarded comments submitted by the state and failed to fully consider the economic impact and national security implications of the critical habitat designation,” Attorney General John Burns said. “Once again, we are faced with federal overreach that threatens our collective prosperity. We don’t intend to let this stand.”

The polar bear was protected under the Endangered Species Act as threatened, range-wide, on May 15, 2008, due to loss of sea ice habitat caused by climate change. Other threats evaluated at that time included impacts from activities such as oil and gas operations, subsistence harvest, shipping, and tourism. No other impacts were considered as significant in the decline, but minimizing effects from these activities could become increasingly important for polar bears as their numbers decline.

The ESA requires that, to the maximum extent prudent and determinable, the Secretary of the Interior designate critical habitat at the time (May 15, 2008) the species is added to the federal list of threatened and endangered species. However, the Service determined that additional time was needed to conduct a thorough evaluation and peer–review of a potential critical habitat designation, and thus did not publish a proposed designation when the listing’s final rule was announced in May of 2008. As part of the settlement of a subsequent lawsuit brought by a group of conservation organizations, the Department of the Interior agreed to publish a Final Rule designating critical habitat for the polar bear. November’s announcement fulfilled the terms of that agreement.

Polar bears evolved for life in the harsh arctic environment, and are distributed throughout most ice-covered seas of the Northern Hemisphere. They are generally limited to areas where the sea is ice-covered for much of the year; however, they are not evenly distributed throughout their range. They are most abundant near the shore in shallow-water areas, and in other places where currents and ocean upwelling increases marine productivity and maintains some open water during the ice-covered season.


On the Web:

A copy of the complaint is available at:



Source of News:

Office of the Governor

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

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