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US polar bears mark their territory

Posted on behalf of Hannah Hoag

More than two years after Alaskan polar bears were given a protection status of “threatened species” by the US Endangered Species Act, the Obama administration set aside on Wednesday 24 November 484,330 sq kilometres — twice the size of the UK — in Alaska as “critical habitat”.

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Almost all of the area is offshore sea ice habitat — where polar bears spend most of their time hunting seals, breeding and travelling—in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s northern coast. It also includes on-shore barrier islands and land used for making dens. About 4,800 polar bears ramble along Alaska’s ice and shores.

On the eve of the US Thanksgiving holiday, environmental groups celebrated the news — albeit cautiously — calling the designation a good start, but limited in its scope.


The designation does not exclude oil and gas exploration from the area. But from now on, federal agencies will have to ensure that proposed activities won’t jeopardize polar bears and their habitat. The decision comes months before Shell was set to renew their efforts (New York Times) to drill in the area. (The company’s plans to drill earlier this year were stopped after the BP oil spill.)

Alaska Governor, Sean Parnell, said (Alaska Dispatch) he would fight the decision, saying it threatened job creation and economic growth. Others have pointed out that the move won’t keep the Arctic sea ice from melting.

Image: Susanne Miller, US FWS

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