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Environmental Implications - Polar Bears


ANWR is an important place not only because of the wide variety of species that it shelters but also because this "coastal tundra is America's only land denning habitat for polar bears" (2). "According to studies of radio-collared polar bears of the Beaufort Sea population between 1981 and 2000, 53 dens were located on the mainland coast of Alaska and Canada. Of these 53 dens, 22 (42%) were within the Arctic Refuge's 1002 Area" (4)† Over the past two decades the polar bear population has been steadily increasing, growing at more than 3% per year from 1967 to 1998, to reach an estimated number that could be as high as 2500 animals in 2001 (3). This rapid population growth of this species has "spanned the entire history of petroleum development in arctic Alaska" (3) as the polar bear population is thriving and thus will not likely be decimated even if drilling is to negatively affect the bears. In fact in a study (Amstrup and Durner) conducted in 1995, 85% of documented deaths of adult female polar bears were a result of hunting and not of environmental changes or natural factors. Although polar bear population is nearing "historic heights" caution must be taken as "possible changes in human activities, including hunting and habitat alterations could precipitate further declines" (3). This point will be clarified in the next section that discusses bears in general (of which polar bears are a part).
Yet, according to WWF report on ANWR, polar bears are especially sensitive to disturbance during denning. The Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears committed the arctic nations to "protect the ecosystems of which polar bears are a part, with special attention to habitat components such as denning and feeding sites and migration patterns." Females may abandon their dens if disturbed, and early den abandonment may be fatal to cubs unable to fend for themselves. In 1985, a female polar bear abandoned her maternity den in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain after seismic exploration vehicles tracked within 700 feet of it ¡V even though regulations at the time required a 0.8-kilometer buffer from known dens. This occurred despite the most extensive monitoring program ever in place for seismic exploration on the North Slope. Most maternity den sites are never known, and therefore cannot be avoided. Their natural curiosity and keen sense of smell often places polar bears in harm¡œs way ¡V they can be attracted to drill rigs, garbage dumps, and contaminants.
Polar bears are especially sensitive to oil spills because they search for food in the open leads or broken ice where oil accumulates. Laboratory experiments showed that oil ingested during grooming caused liver and kidney damage.† One bear died 26 years after oiling and another was euthanized.† However, as far as is known, neither ringed seals or polar bears have been affected by oil spilled as a result of North Slope industrial activities.† Yet, drilling in 1002 may have a greater effect on polar bears as 1002 is a much more important habitat for polar bears as discussed above.
Interactions between polar bears and humans are often lethal. A young bear was shot in Prudhoe Bay by an oil industry employee during the winter of 1968-69, and in 1990 a bear was killed when it approached an offshore rig in Camden Bay, off the Refuge. (WWF's paper titled "Protection of the Artic National Wildlife Refuge: Key to Managing one of the World's Most Biologically Valuable Ecoregions, the Arctic Coastal Tundra")

Polar Bears: "A female polar bear abandoned her maternity den in the Arctic Refuge coastal plain after seismic exploration vehicles tracked within 700 ft of it even though regulations at the time required a 0.8 kilometer (0.5 mile) buffer from known dens. "(WWF "Protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Key to Managing one of the world's most biologically valuable ecoregions, the arctic coastal tundra") Therefore exploration and production activity should be kept at least 0.8 km away from all known areas of polar bear dens.

As previously mentioned, seismic exploration involves the movement of
vehicles in grid patterns all across the tundra. Maternal polar bears
with their newborn cubs can be chased out of their winter dens by the
noise and vibrations and all of the human activities that come along
with the exploration activities (particularly the explosives).
Anticipated negative effects include:
a. Human-bear encounters that can be fatal to either party on many
b. Increased mortality of cubs due to harsh winter conditions that
they're not prepared for.

Works Cited

1. Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas activities on Alaska¡œs
North Slope
2. Save Alaska website
3. Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain Terrestrial Wildlife Research Summaries,
Section 8: Polar Bear
4.US Fish and Wildlife Services website


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