In a move applauded by WWF, the US Department of the Interior has announced the proposed designation of almost 52 million hectares of key polar bear habitat across Alaska. The requirement for the identification of ‘critical habitat’ was triggered by the listing of polar bears as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act in 2008.
“Designation of critical habitat affords important protections to the polar bear, a species imperiled by dramatic changes in its sea ice environment,” says Geoff York, senior program officer for Polar Bear Conservation at WWF.
“As sea ice habitat shrinks, it becomes increasingly important to protect areas that are crucial for the bears’ survival.”
The critical habitat proposal announced today identifies habitat in three separate areas or units: barrier island habitat, sea ice habitat and terrestrial denning habitat. The total area proposed for designation would cover almost 52 million hectares (200,541 square miles).
Barrier island habitat includes coastal barrier islands and spits along Alaska’s coast, and is used for denning, refuge from human disturbances, access to maternal dens and feeding habitat, as well as travel along the coast. Sea ice habitat is located over the continental shelf, and includes water 300m and less in depth. Terrestrial denning habitat includes lands within 32 km (about 20 miles) of the northern coast of Alaska between the Canadian border and the Kavik River and within 8 km (about 5 miles) between the Kavik River and Barrow.
WWF works around the Arctic with local communities, scientists and governments to enhance polar bear conservation, protect their habitat, and ensure sustainable populations. WWF encourages the Department of the Interior to ensure that the views of local people are incorporated in the designation of critical habitat areas.
The world’s top scientific experts on polar bears, the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), recently concluded that the IUCN Red List classification of the polar bear should be upgraded from ‘Least Concern’ to ‘Vulnerable’. That was based on the likelihood of an overall decline in the size of the total population of more than 30% within the next 35 to 50 years.. The principal cause of this decline is climatic warming as it melts away the polar bears’ important sea ice habitat.
At the Polar Bear Specialist Group Meeting this summer, the experts concluded that eight polar bear population groups are now in decline, up from five in 2005.
“Polar bears are not land animals – they evolved over thousands of years to be sea ice specialists. They need the ice to hunt for seals, their primary food. Take away the ice and you take away the bears,” added York.
In recent years, science has documented a decline in the condition and cub survival rate of some of the most southerly bear populations, and most recently significant increases in polar bear movements and home ranges as animals are forced to migrate longer distances in search of food or habitat.
“The changes we are witnessing in the Arctic do not just raise concerns about the fate of iconic species such as polar bear – our own future is at stake,” said York.
“The planet is changing in dangerous ways and the longer we wait to address the climate crisis the costlier it will be. While designation of critical habitat for polar bear is a positive step, it remains critical that the U.S. Senate pass a climate bill this year, moving us closer to reaching a global agreement in Copenhagen this December.”