ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - A vast swath of icy sea, barrier islands and coastal land on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope will be granted special protection because of its importance to the threatened polar bear, under a proposal released Thursday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The agency proposes that 200,000 square miles (518,000 sq km) of coastline and shallow Arctic Ocean waters be designated as critical habitat, a status of heightened protection afforded under the Endangered Species Act.
The area, which would be the largest ever designated for an Endangered Species Act-listed population, overlaps the territory with the largest existing oil fields in the United States where companies operate and plan to explore more.
Tom Strickland, assistant Interior Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said in a telephone news conference that the critical-habitat designation should not hinder further development as long as operations are responsible and careful.
Oil companies are already subject to rules for protecting polar bears imposed by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and under other aspects of the Endangered Species Act.
“The activities going on in the energy community, both onshore and offshore, were already subject to significant regulatory review and consideration as they might affect the bear prior to this step that we’re taking today,” Strickland said.
“We believe that it will not be a significant additional burden on the industry for that reason, but it does further highlight the importance of trying to minimize any kind of activity in these critical areas that might adversely impact the bear.”
Included in the designation are areas where polar bears establish their dens, give birth and nurse their cubs and forage for food, officials said. Over 90 percent of the habitat is water that is often covered by sea ice.
Environmentalists said they were pleased with the plan, which is subject to a 60-day public review before it becomes final.
“The maps all are what scientists say polar bear critical habitat in the U.S. should be,” said Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the environmental groups that sued to gain Endangered Species Act protections for polar bears.
But Cummings and other environmentalists said the Department of Interior must stop the spread of oil development in new Arctic territory to make the critical-habitat designation meaningful.
Alaska state officials, however, are fighting the listing itself and the regulations it entails.
“Some are attempting to use the Endangered Species Act as a way to shut down resource development. I’m not going to let that happen on my watch,” Governor Sean Parnell told a news conference late Wednesday.
The state has sued to overturn the listing and filed a brief earlier this week in U.S. District Court in Washington that argues that polar bear populations are robust and unaffected by sea-ice changes, the Republican governor said.
Editing by Mary Milliken