ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - An area larger than the state of California covering the Arctic Alaska coastline, barrier islands and icy seas will be protected as critical habitat for polar bears, with development severely restricted, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said on Wednesday.
Critical habitat designation is required once a species is listed under the Endangered Species Act. Polar bears, which are struggling with climate change and the loss of seasonal sea ice, were listed as threatened in 2008.
Rosa Meehan, the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska division chief for marine mammals, said the designation strengthen protections that already exist under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Opponents of the critical habitat designation, which includes about 187,000 square miles, said the new protections could inhibit oil and gas development, especially in the offshore areas where Shell is seeking to start drilling as early as next summer.
Shell and other companies hold leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, areas considering promising new oil frontiers.
The state of Alaska, which has sued to remove Endangered Species Act protections for polar bears, objected to the designation of critical habitat.
Gov. Sean Parnell and other development supporters argued that polar bears already have adequate protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
But Meehan said the critical habitat designation will not unduly burden oil developers with new regulations.
Brendan Cummings, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity, said the designation of critical habitat is unlikely to affect current North Slope oil operations but could limit future development.
“I do believe offshore oil development is incompatible with protection of critical habitat,” Cummings said.
The formal designation comes about a year after the Fish and Wildlife Service made its initial proposal to establish habitat protections for polar bears.
The final designation is slightly smaller than what was originally proposed because it excludes areas around the Inupiat Eskimo communities of Barrow and Kaktovik and some military sites.
The critical habitat designation goes into effect as soon as the legal notice is published in the Federal Register, which should be within days, Meehan said.
Editing by Dan Whitcomb