Earlier this month, the Trump administration finalized its reckless plan to lease the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil and gas industry.
The plan offers up almost the entire 1.5 million acre coastal plain for development — including huge expanses of federally designated habitat that support maternal denning for the Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. This population — of about 900 — is among the most imperiled polar bear population on the planet, and it has declined about 50% in the last three decades.
In 2010, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated 120 million acres of northern Alaska as critical habitat for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act, including about 77% of the refuge’s coastal plain. But, with the administration’s "Energy Dominance" plan, designated critical habitat for polar bears is just another place to drill for oil.
Industrial development will turn this pristine habitat into a spiderweb of pipelines, airstrips, drill rigs, roads, gravel mines, buildings and other infrastructure. The Bureau of Land Management has downplayed the negative impacts exploration and drilling would have on this threatened species, but it is certain that habitat loss and fragmentation will disrupt essential life functions like denning, traveling, resting and foraging. Seismic exploration alone could lead to the crushing of bears in dens or mother bears abandoning dens, leaving their cubs to perish.
The coastal plain is the most important terrestrial denning area for U.S. polar bears. Due to climate change and loss of sea ice, pregnant female bears are increasingly coming on land to den. Protecting their habitat is a key recovery strategy identified in the WFS’ Polar Bear Conservation Management Plan prepared under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Without the coastal plain, polar bears will be hit with a one-two punch in an ever-warming world with less of both the sea ice and onshore habitat needed to survive. With sea ice ever-diminishing, the coastal plain has become even more important to this population of bears — making drilling in the heart of the critical polar bear habitat even more risky. If polar bears’ critical refuge in the coastal plain is sold off to oil and gas corporations, polar bears will lose.
We could see the end of polar bears on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in our lifetimes. Oil spills could have dangerous and even deadly impacts on polar bears, damaging vital habitat and poisoning bears that ingest contaminated prey or ingest oil when cleaning their fur. Oiled fur also would reduce the ability of polar bears to keep their normal body temperature, which is important for survival in the arctic. Oil drilling in critical coastal habitat in an increasingly warming Arctic could wipe out the Southern Beaufort population of polar bears from the United States.
Oil and gas exploration and development risk causing injury and death to polar bears, and would threaten the survival of the Southern Beaufort Sea population. The Service has indicated that, to meet biological standards prescribed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, the agency cannot authorize the death of a single additional polar bear. That’s because every polar bear counts now in this population. With only about 900 of these animals remaining, any loss from fossil fuel development will be too many to sustain the Southern Beaufort Sea population into the future.
The Interior Department should shelve its plans to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We will not back down in the fight to protect this irreplaceable landscape.
Jamie Rappaport Clark is the president and chief executive of Defenders of Wildlife. She is a former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1997-2001).