In a partial settlement in an ongoing lawsuit of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Greenpeace against the U.S. Department of the Interior, more than 187,000 square miles (120 million acres) were designated as “critical habitat” for the polar bear. This designation marks the areas crucial to polar bears’ survival. Federal agencies are prohibited to adversely modify the lands and coastal waters in these areas. This may deter future oil drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska, which are part of the critical habitat.
The lawsuit challenges the Department of the Interior’s 2008 decision to classify polar bears as a “threatened” species rather than the more protective “endangered” status and further disputes their special ruling that greenhouse gases could not be regulated as a result of the “threatened” status.
Greenhouse gases make up the primary threat to polar bears. An increase of carbon emissions leads to rising temperatures, which are causing the Arctic ice masses to melt away at a rapid rate. A reduction of large masses of ice limits polar bears’ access to seals, their main food source. Not only does this adversely affect the health of adult polar bears, it also hinders the successful reproduction and nourishment of new bear cubs. Rising temperatures also result in unstable maternity dens, as snowdrifts melt and collapse. If greenhouse gases are not curbed, the polar bear could become extinct in 40 years or less.
For more information about the court decision, see the Center for Biological Diversity’s press release.
To learn more about polar bears and what you can do to help them, see Animal Fact Guide’s article: Polar Bear.