February 27, 2019
Nicole Whittington-Evans

The Plight of the Polar Bear

Alaska’s Arctic is slowing baking, experiencing the effects of climate change at twice the rate of the rest of the world. And polar bears are feeling the heat.

These great white bears are an icon of the Arctic, and many people feel a connection to Ursus maritimus, even if they’ve never seen one in person. But you’ve probably also seen images circulating on the internet of starving polar bears struggling to stand, let alone hunt and contend with the elements. While some populations are doing okay, the Southern Beaufort Sea population that resides in the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic is struggling to survive, with only an estimated 900 bears remaining. Polar bears are facing a barrage of threats, stressors, intrusions, and difficulties every day, and if we don’t act, we could lose them.

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Declining polar bear population

 

Threat #1: Seismic Testing and Fossil Fuel Development in the Arctic Refuge

Seismic exploration is the search for subsurface deposits of oil, natural gas, and minerals by the recording, processing, and interpreting of artificially induced shock waves. Artificial seismic energy is generated on land by loud vibratory mechanisms mounted on specialized, very heavy trucks. In the Arctic Refuge the effort would be supported by mobile camps for three hundred people dragged across the tundra, heavy equipment, and numerous temporary airstrips to transport workers and supplies. It is a huge and impactful industrial activity. The noise can significantly affect wildlife and the equipment would leave its mark on the landscape for decades.

This seismic activity would occur in designated critical habitat for the threatened Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population during denning season. The noise and vibrations could frighten mother bears from their dens, leaving cubs to perish. The large thumper trucks could even crush mother bears and cubs in their dens, as the dens are difficult to detect and avoid, and bears that aren’t scared away are likely to hunker down, believing they’re safe.

Despite the lethal threat to polar bears and the impacts to their habitat, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) fully intended to permit this activity this winter without even preparing an environmental impact statement. Thankfully, the process was substantially delayed and there is no longer sufficient time for seismic work to occur this winter. However, polar bears are not out of danger on the refuge. The BLM and SAExploration, the company slated to conduct testing, are already talking about next winter, and lease sales and future development are also lurking on the horizon. In the meantime, there are many other threats facing polar bears.

Threat #2: Fossil Fuel Development in the NPR-A

Another important respite for denning bears is the National Petroleum Reserve — Alaska. Its name may not evoke images of vast wildlife habitat, but that’s what it contains. BLM is required to protect the incredible fish and wildlife resources on the Reserve while also implementing an oil and gas leasing program.

The BLM is looking to revise the current management plan for the area, known as an Integrated Activity Plan (IAP). Currently, the IAP balances the dual goals of generating revenue and conserving wildlife by permitting oil and gas development on over 11 million acres — a little over half of the Reserve — while restricting development in many of the most sensitive habitat areas. But now BLM is looking to open more public land to leasing and development, meaning more habitat for polar bears could be lost or fragmented from drilling.

Threat #3: Offshore Fossil Fuel Development and Ship Traffic

The Trump administration is also aggressively pursuing oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean, adjacent to both the Arctic Refuge and the NPR-A. The administration’s path to “energy dominance” is through Alaska. Early on, President Trump took executive action to overturn President Obama’s withdrawal of most of the Arctic Ocean from oil and gas leasing and development. Defenders and many of our conservation partners responded by going to court to put a halt to this action and keep the withdrawal in place. Meanwhile, as the court is deciding our case, the Trump administration has initiated a process to revise the offshore five-year program for federal waters, including in the Arctic, and is actively planning to sell new leases in the Arctic Ocean.

In addition, Hilcorp Corporation purchased offshore leases owned by BP since 1990’s and, in October, the administration approved Hilcorp’s offshore Liberty development plan. Hilcorp has gotten the green light to drill production wells from a man-made island within barrier islands in the Beaufort Sea, about five and a half miles offshore and 15 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, right in the heart of polar bear critical habitat. This development would threaten other marine mammals as well, such as seals and whales, and Defenders has gone to court with our conservation partners to block this from happening as well.

Lastly, offshore seismic surveys, which are similar to onshore testing, threaten marine mammals and other ocean wildlife by using sonic blasts to search for oil deposits under the ocean floor. Polar bears using sea ice to hunt or swimming through the sea will undoubtedly be affected by the din. If seismic testing is conducted on nearshore sea ice, it could directly impact and even kill ringed seals, which make their winter lairs on the ice. Ringed seals are both the primary food source for polar bears and are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

An increase in development will bring increased ship traffic, leading to increased noise pollution, disturbance of bears and prey, and a greater risk for disaster. This March is the 30th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster, which killed wildlife, desecrated habitat, and still impacts the Prince William Sound today. With all of this proposed development and increased traffic in the water, it is not a matter of if another spill will occur, but when.

Threat #4: Climate Change

All of these threats are leading to, and exacerbating, climate change, which, by itself, is a severe problem for polar bears. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet and sustaining polar bear populations will become increasingly challenging in the years ahead. Converting their critical habitats into more oilfields and chasing bears away won’t help.

Onshore denning habitat has become increasingly important due to the loss of sea ice from climate change, and seismic testing and development could irreparably damage the most important onshore denning habitat for polar bears in the United States.

With climate change warming the waters and melting sea ice, more and more bears are venturing onshore in search of food. Warming is also causing a host of problems for northern Alaska towns, where native Alaskans have traditionally been able to store food in the ground. In order to prevent conflict, Defenders is working with families to implement coexistence strategies, proactively helping to install food storage lockers, and sharing information with communities that are seeing or could see more hungry bears wandering through their towns.


Habitat loss, disturbance, and climate change are overwhelming polar bears. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain is the most important land habitat for denning polar bears, and precisely where devastating development is proposed to take place. Less than 1% of Alaska’s Arctic coastal eco-region is statutorily protected. We need environmental safeguards in this part of the world, especially considering our changing climate.

That’s why Defenders of Wildlife is fighting for polar bears. We are advocating for protection of this vital habitat. We are litigating against proposed development, especially where ecological impacts and threats to polar bears haven’t been adequately considered. We are speaking up publicly and submitting detailed scientific comments about the plight of polar bears. And we are working on the ground with the communities that live with polar bears to alleviate tensions and prepare for a new normal. Around the country, we are fighting climate change by promoting wildlife-friendly renewable energy development and encouraging a reduction of carbon emissions.

And in response to warming, scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program students, along with Defenders of Wildlife and many others, are engaged in studies to better understand correlations between polar bears’ stress levels and the loss of sea ice. This information is aimed to help researchers better understand polar bear health as the bears experience the effects of climate change.

You can make a difference for polar bears! Vote for leaders who believe climate change is real and support policy and funding allocations to address the climate crisis. Let your elected representatives know that public lands and waters, wildlife habitat, and endangered species are important to you as a constituent. Raise your voice. Federal planning processes must allow opportunities for public input, where you can tell the agencies in charge that you oppose selling out polar bears for short-term profit for oil companies. Examine your own actions and choices. Can you walk more and drive less? Can you grow more of your own food, take vacations with smaller carbon footprints, or use time off to volunteer to help organizations make a lasting difference. Support cutting edge, on the ground conservation for polar bears and other wildlife. We must develop new habits and efficiencies as individuals and as a nation if we want a future with polar bears and other species. And, with your support, Defenders of Wildlife will continue to fight for polar bears, the Arctic, and wildlife across Alaska.

Author(s)

Nicole Whittington-Evans

Nicole Whittington-Evans

Alaska Program Director
Nicole Whittington-Evans started her environmental career studying and working on wildlife issues.

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