Polar Bear Dens at Risk as Fossils Eye Exploration in Alaska National Wildlife Refuge
The airborne imaging fossil companies use to help them avoid polar bear dens when they’re exploring in the Arctic actually detects the dens less than half the time, a new study shows. That means producers won’t be able to help killing mothers and cubs of an iconic and threatened Arctic species if they drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
“Oil operators search for the dens to comply with a federal requirement to build roads and facilities at least a mile away from the hibernating bears, whose shrinking populations are designated as threatened under the (U.S.) Endangered Species Act,” the Washington Post reports. But “according to the study published in the journal PLOS One, infrared technology mounted on airplanes missed 55% of dens that were known to exist west of the Alaskan refuge off Prudhoe Bay.”
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The study was supported by Polar Bears International, a non-profit conservation group, and “comes five months after the Trump administration announced a controversial proposal to allow petroleum operations in the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the most aggressive of five listed options,” the news story adds. “The proposal is in the process of being finalized, possibly by year’s end. It would be the first time exploration and drilling would be allowed in the environmentally pristine refuge, a critical habitat for polar bears.”
The technology the researchers looked into, Forward Looking Infrared, has been used by mining companies since the 1990s to catch the heat signatures of maternal bears that burrow up to four metres below the ice to give birth. “But FLIR is often disrupted by bad weather that blinds it to dens in some surveys and causes it to falsely identify dens in others,” the Post writes. “Researchers who used the surveys provided by the industry as a guide to find dens and study bears between 2004 and 2016 found at least 18 dens that the technology missed. Conversely, they said, bears didn’t occupy areas that surveys said they inhabited.”
“We froze our bleeps off out there,” said study co-author and Brigham Young University environmental biologist Tom S. Smith. “I mean, it’s rough. When someone is telling us there’s a den here and we invest a lot of time and a lot of effort and there’s nothing there, and then we’re going down the sea ice 10 miles away and there’s a den when they said there wasn’t any, we took it kind of personal. We said, ‘this is useless. This is not working.’”
The problem is as simple as the limitations of the technology. “According to the study, co-authored by Steven Amstrup and Geoffrey York of Polar Bears International, FLIR has flaws that the Arctic’s harsh conditions expose nearly every time it is used,” the Post explains. “Howling wind throws it off. It cannot detect heat signatures under a metre of ice.”
Patrick N. Bergt, manager of regulatory and legal affairs for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, countered that FLIR “is just one of many mitigation activities” the industry uses to minimize impacts on polar bears. He added that 40 years of data collection has shown “at most, a negligible impact on polar bear populations” in the study area, adding that much of the available science on bears “is due in large part to the funding, personnel, and cooperation of oil and gas operators” working in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But the Post still points to a huge local impact if drilling in the ANWR proceeds. “The Arctic refuge hosts wolves, migratory birds, and the massive Porcupine caribou herd that is sacred to the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, an Indigenous group that has fought exploration and drilling,” the paper states. According to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, “oil and gas exploration and development could impact just about everything: Native hunting, water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, other types of air pollution, and the breakup of permafrost. It could also result in oil spills and unintended boat strikes on marine mammals.”
Polar bears “stand to be impacted by airstrips and well pads, miles of oil pipelines, storage sites, a sewage treatment plant, and 200 miles of roads,” the Post adds. And “failing to correctly identify dens could have serious consequences. Polar bear mothers could be chased from dens by development activity such as seismic testing and road building before cubs are strong enough to survive the rigours of life on Arctic terrain. The animals could also be crushed or buried alive.”
The Plos One study goes into evocative detail on the early life of polar bears and how it would be affected by oil and gas activity. “The likelihood that maternal dens could be disturbed can be expected to increase” with expanded exploration, it says, and “because polar bear cubs cannot leave the shelter of the den until approximately three months of age, disruption…can have negative consequences.” The study explains that cubs weigh about a kilogram when they’re born around the turn of the year, then nurse through the winter months before emerging in spring.
The mothers “have to socialize and create a bond with their cubs so that they’ll stay close for a couple of years, or they could wander off and get picked off by a predator,” Smith said. “They develop muscle skills…so they can learn to walk and jump on ice.”
But if the mothers are disturbed or the den are destroyed, all that early bonding and development can be lost. “That’s not going to end well for those little cubs,” he told the Post.