US to establish 187,000-square-mile ‘critical habitat’ for polar bears in Alaska

Associated Press / November 25, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is setting aside 187,000 square miles in Alaska as a “critical habitat’’ for polar bears, an action that could add restrictions to future offshore drilling for oil and gas.

The total, which includes large areas of sea ice off the Alaska coast, is about 13,000 square miles less than in a preliminary plan released last year.

Tom Strickland, Interior assistant secretary for fish, wildlife, and parks, said the designation would help polar bears stave off extinction, recognizing that the greatest threat is the melting of Arctic sea ice caused by climate change.

“This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations,’’ he said. “We’ll continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species.’’

A critical habitat designation does not in itself block economic activity.

Nearly 95 percent of the designated habitat is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.