Critical Win for Alaska's Polar Bears
Our fight to save polar bears from extinction scored an important victory in November when the Obama Administration designated 187,000 square miles along the north coast of Alaska -- an area larger than the state of California -- as critical habitat for the bears. The move was part of a settlement in an ongoing lawsuit filed by NRDC and the Center for Biological Diversity against the Interior Department, challenging its failure to take sufficient action to save polar bears from the threat of extinction.
The new designation of protected habitat covers a rugged range of coastal areas that are essential denning and hunting grounds for the bears, including barrier islands and stretches of offshore sea ice. "Polar bears are slipping away as the ice literally melts beneath their feet," says Andrew Wetzler, director of NRDC's land and wildlife program. "Protecting their critical habitat is an important step in the right direction, especially in helping to ward off destructive oil and gas development."
With scientists predicting that Alaska's polar bears could be extinct in as little as 40 years, however, the Obama Administration is going to have to step up and do more. We are continuing to press our case in federal court, seeking to overturn a 2008 decision by the Interior Department that denied polar bears the highest level of protection under law -- "endangered" -- and listed them as "threatened" instead. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have argued that the polar bear is not endangered because its extinction is not "imminent." In November, the court questioned the reasoning behind this specious argument and ordered the Interior Department to reconsider or clarify its rationale. "If we wait to protect polar bears until they're nearly extinct," says Wetzler, "then we will be too late."