House members ask FWS to use care in polar bear habitat action

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Dec. 28 -- Thirteen US House members asked Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to consider economic and energy security consequences of adopting a US Fish and Wildlife Service recommendation proposal to place critical habitat for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“We urge the FWS to rely on the best available peer-reviewed science when determining the appropriate critical habitat for the polar bear, especially if such habitat designation could adversely impact activities essential to our nation’s economy and severely impact US industry and consumers,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alas.) and 12 other House members said in their Dec. 22 letter.

“As was the listing itself, the habitat designation is critical to Alaska, the nation, and the international community,” the 12 Republicans and one Democrat, Dan Boren (Okla.), continued.

Their letter came as a 60-day comment period ended for the Interior agency’s Oct. 22 proposal to put approximately 200,541 sq miles of barrier islands, sea ice, and terrestrial denning habitat under the ESA. The proposed critical habitat includes areas of oil and gas activity, FWS noted.

The polar bear was listed as a threatened species under the ESA in May 2008 due to loss of sea habitat from melting polar ice. FWS said other threats evaluated at that time included impacts from human activities such as oil and gas exploration and production, subsistence harvests, shipping, and tourism.

It said the ESA requires the US Interior secretary, to the maximum extent possible, to designate critical habitat at the time a species is listed. FWS determined, however, that more time would be needed to conduct a thorough evaluation and peer review of a potential critical habitat designation and consequently did not publish a proposed designation with the final listing rule.

Mid-2010 deadline
As part of a subsequent legal settlement with several environmental organizations, DOI agreed to publish a final rule designating critical habitat for the polar bear no later than June 30, 2010, FWS said. The Oct. 22 proposal was a step toward fulfilling that agreement, it indicated.

“The FWS acknowledges that the sum of documented impacts from activities, such as oil and gas development and shipping, have been minimal on the polar bear population,” the lawmakers said, adding, “Data provided by monitoring and reporting programs in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, as required under the more restrictive Marine Mammal Protection Act incidental take authorizations for oil and gas activities, have shown that oil and gas activities can coexist with polar bears through the use of appropriate mitigation measures.”

They added they support FWS efforts to assure polar bears and other wildlife thrive and recognize the polar bear “has become iconic in the climate change debate, and as such, any policy affecting them quickly becomes one infused with emotion and attention from certain special interest groups.”

They said, “We strongly urge the FWS to use sound science and incorporate any applicable technological and scientific advances when determining the most effective way to proceed forward with the polar bear proposed critical habitat. As climate modeling and scientific technology continue to develop, we trust that the FWS will reevaluate any determinations.”

The letter produced an immediate response from Consumer Energy Alliance Pres. David Holt. “Balancing the safe, responsible development of America’s abundant natural resources while ensuring its critical habitat is preserve is something we can do, must do, and in fact have done for many years,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the [FWS] proposal, as currently written, seeks to lock up enormous resources of American energy [which] could create thousands of good-paying jobs and help stabilize energy prices for struggling consumers when they need it most,” Holt observed.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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