walrus_lg.jpgThe Chukchi Sea is home to more than polar bears, while they have been receiving the bulk of the attention most recently in this region. Walruses have been congregating in large numbers on islands and on the shores of the Chukchi Sea in Russia, and thus overcrowding them. The lack of summer sea ice has given them no place to haul out and rest.
The problem is that when frightened, the walruses stampede and many get squashed to death. The recent mortality was said to be 3,000 to 4,000 mostly young.
If ice continues to decline in summers, as expected, walruses will be putting much greater pressure on near land underwater feeding areas. Walruses are already dying from global warming; the loss of Arctic sea ice which walruses use to rest, led to overcrowding on land.
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Today the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming held a hearing: “On thin ice: the future of the polar bear.” The room was full, and there was a fairly good turnout of at least eight Congressmen and women. Children were among those in attendance, their eyes wide as they absorbed the strong words that flew from all sides of the room. Some “polar bears” even made an appearance, positioning themselves for coverage on C-SPAN and holding up signs.

Chairman Markey called the hearing today to press the Department of the Interior about its decision to delay the listing of the polar bear as threatened — under the Endangered Species Act — for up to one month, and to simultaneously offer up almost 30 million acres of the Chukchi Sea — the polar bear’s habitat — for oil and gas lease sales on Feb. 6, before the decision is made. The hearing also provided a forum to learn more about the plight of the polar bear and the potential impacts drilling could have on polar bear populations. Markey called this hearing because people are paying attention; several editorials have been run in major papers in the US (Washington Post, NYTimes, LATimes, etc) regarding the status of this iconic species and our reckless oil habit – – the situation will not continue quietly if such pressure continues. If listed, the polar bear’s protection would be linked to the impacts of global warming — a first in history.

Throughout the course of the hearing it became overwhelmingly clear that the science surrounding the status of the polar bear is unequivocal. The threats posed to this great creature are tangible, quantifiable and ever increasing as we emit more global warming pollution each day. Congressman Inslee (D-WA) put it the best when he said that the polar bear is the largest canary in the largest coal mine regarding the future of our planet. And it is only with willful ignorance and habitual arrogance that we choose to ignore science for a temporary oil fix from the newly opened northern seas. Not only is drilling in the Chukchi Sea devastating for wildlife, it does nothing to help us move away from our addiction to oil.

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The polar bear was once the world’s mostformidable predator. It now lies on the brink of extinction due to global warming and habitat loss. The bear and its habitat stand to gain some protections under the Endangered Species Act this year, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was due to make a decision about its “threatened” status by this Wednesday. The Service has, however, delayed the listing for up to one month!

This leaves the bear and its habitat unprotected. Coincidentally, one of the largest oil and gas lease sales is set to occur on February 6, in the Chukchi Sea off of the northwest coast of Alaska – a region we will pay more and more attention to as our world warms and the sea opens up for potential large-scale exploration, I mean preservation… The Department of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service announced its plan to offer oil and gas exploration rights in February to 29.7 million acres in the remote Chukchi Sea off the northwest Alaskan coast. There are about 16,000 polar bears in the region. Such exploration would further stress the polar bear, and does nothing for our movement toward a clean energy future.

The timing raises suspicions that the Bush Administration is doing this in an effort to avoid scrutiny of oil and gas leases in polar bear habitat under the Endangered Species Act. Yes… and:

Both the decision to list the polar bear, and the decision to delay the oil and gas lease sale in the Chukchi Sea fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. You can contact Dirk Kempthorne, Secretary of the Interior, and petition the DOI to halt the sale of oil and gas leases in this northern sea, if there really is no connection between the two…

Also: TheGreenMiles entry about this on DailyKos.