Protection of Actual Polar Bear Habitat in Alaska Proposed
The nation’s home builders received some encouraging news in an Oct. 22 proposal by the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to protect polar bears by designating 200,000 square miles of Alaskan territory as critical habitat rather than considering regulating parts of the rest of the country.
In 2008, DOI added polar bears to the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) after environmental groups sued the federal government for failing to protect the animals from the effects of global climate change and the corresponding loss of polar sea ice habitat.
At a press conference last week, federal officials pointed out that only land use activities occurring within polar areas of Alaska would be subject to ESA requirements, reaffirming the position of the Bush Administration.
DOI’s decision to list the polar bear was viewed by environmental groups as an opportunity to use ESA requirements — including the designation of critical habitat — to more comprehensively regulate land use activities presumably causing greenhouse gas emissions, including those occurring far from the bear’s natural habitat.
The Endangered Species Act requires all federal agencies to consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service before working in areas designated as critical habitat. As part of its analysis, the service studies both the direct and indirect effects of the proposed project to make an "adverse modification" determination.
Ninety-three percent of the proposed designated polar bear habitat in Alaska is coastal sea ice, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency added that it did not expect the designation to have a significant impact on oil and gas drilling in the area because the polar bear is already protected by existing laws, such as the Marine Mammal Act.
However, designating critical habitat will provide additional federal funding to study the polar bear and how it is faring as changes to its habitat occur, said Michael Mittelholzer, NAHB’s assistant vice president for environmental issues.
Mittelholzer indicated that the Fish and Wildlife Service is taking the correct approach by focusing upon areas where the bear actually lives rather than seeking to use the designation as a “back-door” opportunity to regulate greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S.
The polar bear’s listing last year as a “threatened” species raised speculation that development in areas as far away as Southern California might be affected because of “indirect” impacts on global temperatures, including further melting of the sea ice that supports the polar bear and its food supply.
For more information, e-mail Calli Schmidt at NAHB, or call her at 800-368-5242 x8132.