Standing Up for Polar Bears

Standing Up for Polar Bears

Standing Up for Polar Bears

When we think about the Arctic, a polar bear is often the first animal that comes to mind. The snow-white marine mammals are native to the Arctic and surrounding areas. But unfortunately, their numbers are dwindling, largely due to human-driven climate change. Their habitat warms four times faster than the rest of the world. Less sea cover means a shorter hunting season, which forces the bears to hunt on land, where food is scarce. Plus, large ships pass through the Arctic and dump toxic pollutants and chemicals, endangering all marine life. 

These factors have led to a 40% decline in the polar bears’ population over the past few decades, leaving less than 900 Beaufort Sea polar bears. 

But when polar bears needed more protections put in place, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) passed a regulation that did just the opposite. The agency’s regulation gave oil and gas companies in Alaska a pass to harass polar bears and walruses along the Beaufort Sea coast and on the North Slope. Such harassment included scaring bears off with noise, equipment, and vehicles. This interrupts the bears’ day-to-day survival including feeding, hunting, tending young, and interacting with other bears. And for baby cubs, the harassment could be lethal.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s own research found a whopping 95% probability that the North Slope’s oil and gas activities would be lethal to polar bears during the regulation’s five-year period. But instead of taking action to prevent such harm, the agency moved forward with allowing this activity.

But we refused to ignore science and let the destructive oil and gas industry slide.

FWS’s regulation went against the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits unauthorized harassment of marine mammal populations like polar bears. So in September 2021, we joined conservation groups to sue the Biden administration for issuing the regulation that allowed such harassment. 

In addition to our lawsuit, we got our members involved to apply pressure on the administration. Over 55,000 Friends of the Earth members got involved and signed petitions calling on the Fish and Wildlife Service to take action and protect endangered polar bears from Arctic oil and gas drilling.

Thankfully, in March 2023, a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must correct legal errors that allow oil and gas companies to harass Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears! 

For far too long, the fossil fuel industry has gotten too much leeway with its exploitation of oil and gas in the Arctic. But this win shows that when we work together, we can take a stand against Big Oil and protect the region’s pristine wildlife. We will continue to fight Big Oil’s destruction and strengthen legislation like the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act that are in place to safeguard our wildlife. 

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