(CNN) — The setting aside of 187,000 square miles in Alaska as “critical habitat” for polar bears could have an impact on oil and gas drilling, federal and environmental officials said Wednesday.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designated the land along the north coast of Alaska as part of a partial settlement in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.
“This critical habitat designation enables us to work with federal partners to ensure their actions within its boundaries do not harm polar bear populations,” Tom Strickland, assistant secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said in a statement. “Polar bears are completely dependent upon Arctic sea-ice habitat for survival.”
The decision does not create a refuge or affect land ownership and private property, but it does give federal authorities leeway when deciding on a project that could negatively affect polar bears.
“It will provide an additional level of consultation,” said FWS spokesman Bruce Woods in Anchorage, Alaska. Critical habitat is a specific area where policies can assist a species in recovery.
Environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council, welcomed the announcement, but sounded some concerns.
“The designation clearly identifies the areas that need to be protected if the polar bear is to survive in a rapidly melting Arctic,” Brendan Cummings, senior counsel with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “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.”