Groups object to rule allowing Big Oil to harass Alaska polar bears

Groups object in court to Alaska magistrate’s rule allowing oil and gas companies to harass Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — National and Alaska environmental groups filed an objection in U.S. District Court today over a magistrate’s findings and recommendation that would let stand a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rule allowing oil and gas companies to harass Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears. The magistrate submitted findings this month on our lawsuit challenging the incidental take regulations for oil and gas activities on Alaska’s North Slope.

The 2021 Biden administration rule lets oil and gas companies harass already threatened Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears and ignores the likelihood that these activities could cause injury and death. Our lawsuit charged Fish and Wildlife Service with violating the Marine Mammals Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act.

“‘Harassment’ is a fancy legal way of saying that an action disturbs or injures these polar bears, who are already on the Threatened Species List,” said Nicole Schmitt, executive director of Alaska Wildlife Alliance. “We are extremely disappointed with the magistrate’s findings around a rule allowing oil and gas companies to harass almost half of the polar bears left in the Southern Beaufort Sea population. Continued harassment can stress polar bears to the point of injury or death, and there are only about 900 of these polar bears left. On top of rapid climate change, we should be looking at ways to save this species, not harm them.”

The 2021 rule allows oil and gas corporations to harass polar bears while carrying out broad and intensive industrial activities for five years from 2021-2026. It gives the go ahead for oil operators to harass bears in ways that compel the animals to delay or stop feeding, hunting, tending young, interacting with other bears, and generally focusing on survival. This harassment includes scaring bears off with noise, equipment, and vehicles, and disrupting polar bear denning or eating sites. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own evidence made it clear that the oil and gas activities proposed would have significant, and possibly lethal impacts, to polar bears. But the agency brushed those findings under the rug.

“The rule doubles down on the threat to the Beaufort Sea polar bear population by letting an industry already responsible for a climate crisis also harm and potentially kill polar bear cubs while further industrializing the bears’ habitat for oil and gas,” said Bridget Psarianos, senior staff attorney with Trustees for Alaska. “Our objection to the magistrate’s recommendation goes to the core of biodiversity health and the laws designed to protect it. Fish and Wildlife Service shrugged off its obligation to the law and the public by failing to fully consider the impacts of industry’s harm to polar bears. We are optimistic that the District Court will take our objections seriously and reconsider this case.”

For denning cubs, who are weak and need time in their dens with their mothers, this harassment can be fatal. Fish and Wildlife Service’s own science presented a 95 percent probability that the North Slope’s oil and gas activities will cause serious injury or death to polar bears over the regulation’s five-year period.

The administration issued the regulation after Alaska Oil and Gas Association asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow oil and gas operators in Alaska to harass polar bears and walruses in the Beaufort Sea and on the North Slope. We filed a lawsuit with the Center on Biological Diversity on behalf of clients in September 2021.

The law firm Trustees for Alaska filed the lawsuit on behalf of seven groups and represents five clients in the case: the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Alaska Wilderness League, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment America, and the Sierra Club, which also represents itself. Trustees is co-counseling with the Center for Biological Diversity, which represents itself and Friends of the Earth.

Group statements:

“Because of climate change, Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears are already the most imperiled polar bears on the planet,” said Andy Moderow, Alaska state director for Alaska Wilderness League. “We cannot allow oil and gas activities to make the situation worse. This population of apex predators has been in rapid decline — by 50 percent during the last three decades — and their survival is a bellwether for the Arctic lands and communities being ravaged by climate change. We must look to the Arctic for solutions, instead of allowing actions that add insult to injury in a warming world.”

“The Biden administration likes to frame itself as a leader on combating the climate crisis, yet its approval of this unlawful, Trump-era handout to Big Oil is extremely disappointing,” said Hallie Templeton, legal director with Friends of the Earth. “The impacts to protected species are one of many significant harms at stake. We will keep fighting and hope that the district court sees the clear violations of law that the Fish and Wildlife Service has committed.”

“Polar bears were already on thin ice,” said Steve Blackledge, senior director of conservation campaigns with Environment America. “We’re objecting to the initial findings because a loss in court could mean the loss of this singular population of a majestic species. We need to better protect polar bears. There’s no coming back from extinction.”

“Polar bears are one of the Arctic’s most imperiled species, and we should be doing more, not less, to protect their populations,” said Mike Scott, senior campaign representative with Sierra Club’s Our Wild Alaska. “We are hopeful that Judge Gleason will reject these recommendations and prevent Fish and Wildlife from further eroding the protections provided by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

“The Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population, estimated at only 900 animals, is already threatened and severely affected by rapid Arctic climate change,” said Nicole WhittingtonEvans, Director of Alaska Program for Defenders of Wildlife. “We are greatly disappointed with the magistrate’s recommendations to the Court and strongly object to it sanctioning the continued industry harassment of hundreds of these bears for another five years in Alaska. Business as usual will not lead to recovery for this iconic and irreplaceable population.”

Communications contact: Brittany Miller, [email protected], 202-222-0746

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