© Danielle Brigida, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Polar bears have a “refuge” in the US Arctic—for now

9 April 2021

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Polar Bears: Facing a Changing Arctic. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain has become a haven for polar bears looking for a safe place to den with their cubs as sea ice continues to retreat. The oil and gas exploratory activities that could kill these bears have come to a halt, but as Michael Crispino explains, the threat remains.

It's almost breeding season for polar bears. Come fall, pregnant females will begin creating dens where they will give birth to and protect their cubs until they’re ready to venture out alone in the Arctic’s unforgiving environment. The world that cubs are born into next winter will look much different than it did a couple of decades ago.

Sea ice is essential habitat for polar bears—they need it to find mates, travel, hunt and create maternal dens. But the ice is retreating, and scientists estimate that roughly one-third of all female bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea population along Alaska’s North Slope Borough have adapted by making their dens on land along the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It’s an attractive spot.

A long history of value

The US government first protected the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain and surrounding areas in 1960. But that was hardly the first time the value of this landscape was recognized. The rich productivity and biodiversity found in the Arctic Refuge have sustained Indigenous communities for millennia. Indigenous People living in the United States and Canada—including Gwich’in, Iñupiat and Inuvialuit—continue to maintain close connections to the bounty of the environment.

The changing climate and the prospect of profits first began drawing the oil and gas industry to the Coastal Plain in the 1960s. While the goal is extraction, the first step is conducting seismic testing to locate oil deposits. This activity requires heavy, destructive tracked vehicles to conduct surveys and drag large camps across the tundra to house hundreds of workers. This equipment is heavy enough to disturb and possibly even crush dens, potentially killing mothers and their cubs.

Not all Alaska Natives are opposed to drilling. It can bring much-needed revenue into remote communities that would otherwise have few economic alternatives. In fact, an Alaska Native corporation is currently seeking permission to conduct seismic testing—and ultimately, to drill—in the Coastal Plain.

A turning tide

Still, over the last few years, industry has largely backed off its interest in the area. Big-name financial firms have pledged not to support activities in the Refuge, and in January 2021, the oil and gas industry largely failed to show up for a rushed sale of oil and gas leases. Industrial development of the area is now widely viewed as a failed idea, and any hope that remained for those who still want to drill was quickly dampened with the arrival of a new presidential administration.

During its first days in office, the Biden administration paused all activities that advance oil and gas development on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge. It’s a temporary reprieve, but it gives all forms of life in the Refuge some room to breathe—for the first time in a long time. And lawmakers in the US Congress have introduced the Arctic Refuge Protection Act, which would repeal the oil and gas programme in the Refuge and protect the Coastal Plain from any future oil and gas exploration or development.

No one is quite sure just how much oil is beneath the surface of the Coastal Plain, but there is a strong scientific consensus that it should remain where it is. The climate crisis is rapidly changing the entire region, and its implications are global. More oil to burn would only fuel the crisis and put the Refuge and everything in it at risk from toxic spills and mishaps. Large-scale industrial development would also degrade the Coastal Plain’s majestic landscape and undermine its ecosystem functions.

If permanent protections are secured, and if Alaska Native communities have the support they need to reduce their economic reliance on fossil fuel production, then polar bear cubs born into the next generation may find that a different world awaits them—perhaps a less threatening one. That part is up to us.

MICHAEL CRISPINO is senior director, Oceans communications for WWF–US and leads its communications on the Arctic.