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For Immediate Release, April 20, 2011

Contacts:  Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110
Caitlin Leutwiler, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3226
Melanie Duchin, Greenpeace, (907) 227-2700

Conservationists Intervene in Lawsuit That Aims to Take Away Polar Bear Habitat

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Greenpeace today intervened in a lawsuit in order to defend polar bear critical habitat against challenges from oil companies and the state of Alaska.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the state of Alaska are challenging the Interior Department’s 2010 designation of more than 120 million acres (187,000 square miles) of critical habitat for the polar bear in Arctic Alaska. The plaintiffs complain that the protections for polar bear habitat will be an impediment to oil drilling in the Arctic.

“If polar bears are going to live to see the next century, we have to rapidly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and preserve the Arctic, not turn it into a dirty industrial zone,” said Rebecca Noblin, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska director. “To protect polar bears we must protect the places they live, both from dangerous climate change and from oil spills.” 

The polar bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 because of the rapid melting of its sea-ice habitat. In November 2010, Interior designated 120 million acres of sea ice, barrier islands and coastal areas in Alaska as critical habitat for the bear. The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from authorizing activities that will destroy or harm a listed species’ critical habitat.

“With their homes literally melting beneath their feet, polar bears need all the protection they can get,” said Jason Rylander, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “If polar bears are to survive the impacts of climate change, we have to protect the habitat that is critical to their ability to find food and raise their young.”

Despite protecting great swaths of the Arctic Ocean as polar bear habitat, the Interior Department is currently moving forward with plans to allow oil companies to drill in that very same habitat. Oil drilling and polar bears do not mix. Earlier this year the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon and Offshore Drilling released a report concluding that the oil industry is not prepared to deal with a large spill in the Arctic and recommending that no drilling be allowed until the industry can demonstrate the ability to clean up spills in the harsh conditions of the Arctic Ocean.

“If we protect polar bear critical habitat, we are by extension also protecting the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Chukchi Sea and other important areas of the Arctic,” said Melanie Duchin, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace. “The state and oil industry’s lawsuits are a threat not just to the polar bear but to the health of the Arctic ecosystem.”

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the state of Alaska filed their challenges to polar bear habitat in federal district court in Alaska last month. Alaska Native corporations separately notified Interior of their intent to challenge the critical habitat rule but to date have not filed a lawsuit.

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