The Obama administration in Washington on Thursday designated more than 480,000 sq kms as a protected area for polar bears, which have been designated by the U.S. as a threatened species.

But environmental groups said the area - which consists mainly of ice off the coast of Alaska - was only a start and does not guarantee protection from threats by climate change and oil and gas firms.

Tom Strickland, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife parks, announcing the protected area, said: “This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations. Nevertheless, the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of its sea ice habitat caused by human-induced climate change. We will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species.” Obama’s resolve will be tested soon, with decisions pending on whether to allow drilling to go ahead and court cases relating to climate change.

The designated area includes large parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off northern Alaska. About 96% of the protected area is sea ice. The ruling does not mean an automatic ban on drilling or other activity in the area, however, only that any applications will be subject to review.

The Centre for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and other groups welcomed it as a first step but insisted it would be ineffective in the long run unless steps were taken to deal with climate change and the melting ice cap.

The U.S. department of the interior, under the Bush administration, designated the polar bears as threatened rather than endangered, which would have provided them with greater protections, including moves to stop polluters. After a court action by environmental groups, a judge ordered the department to explain by December 23 why it had opted for threatened rather than endangered.

Brendan Cummings, a lawyer with the U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity, which is bringing the legal action with Greenpeace, among others, said: “The critical habitat designation clearly identifies the areas that need to be protected if the polar bear is to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic.

“However, unless the interior department starts to take seriously its mandate to actually protect the polar bear’s critical habitat, we will be writing the species’ obituary rather than its recovery plan.” The Center for Biological Diversity said scientists predict that if present greenhouse gas trends continue two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, including all those in Alaska, will be probably gone in 40 years, if not before.

Oil companies are keen to begin drilling once the winter ice breaks up. Their applications have been called in by the Obama administration for review. The oil companies argue that there will be no repeat of the Gulf spillage and they can meet tougher government regulations.

Kara Moriarty, deputy director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, told Associated Press the action would hurt oil and gas exploration in Alaska by creating more delays and added costs to projects in what already is a high-cost environment. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has found over and over again our activities pose no threat to the polar bear,” she said.

There are two polar bear populations in the U.S., in the Chukchi Sea and the Southern Beaufort Sea. They can also be found in Russia and Canada, and elsewhere in the Arctic Circle.

Shell and other companies hold leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, and Shell plans to begin exploratory drilling next summer. The firm had planned to start this year, but this was put on hold after the Gulf oil spill. The oil firms are backed by Alaskan governor Sean Parnell, as they were by his predecessor, Sarah Palin. He argues that the area is too large and that delays could hurt Alaska’s economy.

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010

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