New bill to protect polar bears in the U.S. | Polarjournal
Polar bear mothers give birth and raise their cubs in a den in the first few months. Only around April/May they leave the dens and try to get to the pack ice as soon as possible in order to be able to provide food and hunting lessons for the cubs. Photo: Michael Wenger

Polar bears have been in a difficult position in the US Arctic since the Trump administration came to power. Expanding resource exploration in Alaska, revamping the Endangered Species Protection Act, the list is long. For years, environmental groups, nature and animal welfare organizations have been fighting the creeping undermining efforts on the protection of the Arctic and polar bears, including in the largest Arctic nature reserve in the United States Arctic region. Now they have unexpectedly received help from the political side. In the House of Representatives a bill was introduced to increase the protection of polar bear mothers and their cubs in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

The draft provides that the ANWR, the largest Arctic protected area in the USA, will not only lay a 1-mile (1.6 km) wide protection zone around the dens of polar bears, but all activities and measures related to resource extraction will be prohibited by law in this area. Currently, there is only a protection mandate from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which will expire next year. The mandate is not expected to be renewed, as both the federal government in Washington DC and the state government in Anchorage, Alaska, are pushing hard to expand oil exploration on the so-called North Slope, the Alaskan coast.

Democratic Representative Jared Huffman, 56, has been a representative for Northern California in the House of Representatives since 2013. The lawyer is particularly committed to nature conservation, a separation of state and church and to more politics based on reason, science and moral values. Photo: U.S. House of Representatives

«My bill takes a clear, science-driven approach to protecting this imperiled polar bear population from proposed oil activities in the Arctic Refuge»

Jared Huffman, Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives

The bill was introduced by Democratic Representative Jared Huffman (D-California) to oppose President Trump’s proposed lease sale of mining rights in the North Slopes area. “My bill takes a clear, science-driven approach to protecting this imperiled polar bear population from proposed oil activities in the Arctic Refuge as the government continues to haggle over the ill-conceived plan to lease, explore, and develop one of the last sacred American wildernesses,” Huffman said in a statement. In his opinion, continuing the plans to extract oil would have massive consequences for the environment and animals, he writes in his statement.

Two studies published this year form the scientific background for the bill. Both show that current practices for the detection of polar bear den are not sufficient for protection, and that polar bear mothers hardly leave their dens voluntarily. Photo: Michael Wenger

His bill takes up the latest findings on polar bear mothers and the use of affected regions. For two recent studies have shown the importance of comprehensive protection of areas around polar bear dens: on the one hand, a study showed that thermal imaging cameras are not reliable when it comes to detect polar bear dens; On the other hand, another work proved that polar bear mothers do not give up their dens even under stressful conditions and thus put themselves and their young in danger, especially by heavy vehicles, which then drive over the dens. This should not happen again in the future according to Huffman’s bill. With Democrats holding a majority in the House of Representatives, and some eventual support in the Senate, even with powerful senators such as Alaska’s Representative, Senator Lisa Murkowski, the bill could be passed and put another obstacle in the way of the planned lease sale.

The map shows the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The black hatched part is the pure wilderness area, where the Trump administration wants to build infrastructure for offshore oil production. Map: US Fisheries and Wildlife Service

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Links to the studies:

Smith et al. (2020)

Larson et al. (2020)

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