A symbol of the wild
Arctic and an integral link in its complex food chain,
proposals to drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge would have
a huge impact on America's polar bear population. The
coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is the nation's most
important onshore polar bear denning habitat. Pregnant
females come ashore in November and December, build an ice
den and give birth to one or two cubs. About 40% of the
dens used by the Beaufort Sea population in Alaska are
onshore and more than 60% of these are on the Arctic
Individual polar bear
dens are extremely difficult to locate and therefore also
difficult to avoid disturbing. Protection of onshore
denning habitat is crucial because polar bears have a low
rate of reproduction and are especially sensitive to human
disturbances like aircraft, ships, road construction and
traffic, pipelines, seismic work, drilling and oil
transport activities. Once disturbed, polar bears may
abandon their dens, leaving their cubs to die. According
to a 1987 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
"early den abandonment can be fatal to cubs unable to
fend for themselves or travel with their mother."
Oil spills can also be
particularly catastrophic. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service (FWS) notes "Bears which have been fouled by
oil may suffer thermo-regulatory problems, ingest oil, and
may exhibit other detrimental effects such as inflammation
of the nasal passages or central nervous system. Bears
that contact oil are likely to die."
Because polar bears exist
in relatively small populations and have low reproductive
rates (only a quarter of the female bears become pregnant
in any given year), they are highly susceptible to even
small decreases in population numbers. Alaska's Beaufort
Sea population of 1,800 polar bears appears to be stable
currently, but even small decreases in bear cub survival
or increases in female mortality could be devastating.
The myriad risks to polar
bears from oil field development include:
- Disturbance of
females while denning could cause them to
- Death, injury
or harassment resulting from encounters with
- Damage or
destruction of essential habitat (e.g.,
feeding, breeding and especially denning
areas) by dumping, dredging, drilling and
construction of platforms, pipelines, roads
and support facilities.
- Contact with
and ingestion of oil and other contaminants
(e.g., ethylene glycol antifreeze, heavy
metals, organochlorines, etc.) used in oil
- Attraction to
industrial areas with subsequent habituation
to humans and increased control actions.
(disturbance) by aircraft, ships and other
vehicles (stress/overheating when fleeing,
interruption of feeding).
effects on the polar bear's main source of
food, ringed seals, due to impacts of oil,
noise and other contaminants.
hunting pressures due to greater access.
Read more about polar
bears in our Polar
Bears in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge fact
Read the testimony
of Jack Lentfer before Congress on the
impacts of oil development on polar bears.