The Obama administration is setting aside 187,000 square miles in Alaska as a "critical habitat" for polar bears, an action that could add restrictions to future offshore drilling for oil and gas. The total, which includes large areas of sea ice off the Alaska coast, is about 13,000 square miles, or 8.3 million acres, less than in a preliminary plan released last year.
…Designation of critical habitat does not in itself block economic activity or other development, but requires federal officials to consider whether a proposed action would adversely affect the polar bear's habitat and interfere with its recovery.
Nearly 95 percent of the designated habitat is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska's northern coast. Polar bears spend most of their lives on frozen ocean where they hunt seals, breed and travel.
…The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said reductions included in the final rule were mostly due to corrections that more accurately reflect the U.S. border in the Arctic Ocean. Five U.S. Air Force radar sites were exempted from the final rule, as were Native Alaskan communities in Barrow and Kaktovik, Alaska.
The Interior Department has declared polar bears "threatened," or likely to become endangered, citing a dramatic loss of sea ice. Officials face a Dec. 23 deadline to explain why the bears were listed as threatened instead of the more protective "endangered."