Minnesotans fight for polar bears’ rights

New oil drilling areas in Alaska are threatening the polar bears’ habitat.

Betsy Graca

While drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been a hot topic for several years, a new territory is facing drilling threats under the radar.

The Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, off northwestern Alaska, were leased Feb. 6 for the possibility of oil drilling.

Now, the Interior Department – which the Fish and Wildlife Service is a part of – is facing a lawsuit from environmental groups and Alaskan natives for missing their deadline to declare the territory “critical.” The department has been accused of stalling their research to allow drilling leases.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the polar bear habitat would be protected if it were considered critical.

The Bowhead Whale and the walrus habitats are also threatened by drilling in the area.

Jane Chen, fisheries and wildlife sophomore, has been advocating the issue on campus.

“I’ve always loved polar bears,” she said. “They’re a legendary animal.”

Chen, who first got involved with the campaign for a service learning class, said she hopes to encourage students to pressure their senators to fight for this issue in Washington.

On behalf of the Interior Department, Mineral Management Services stated in a press release that they delayed sale of the lease to provide sufficient time to complete the environmental analyses of the area.

Lois Norrgard of the Alaska Wilderness League said focus should be placed on renewable energy instead of these seas.

Shell Oil Company was the highest bidder for the lease with $2.6 million, she said.

“Imagine if we put $2.6 million into renewable energy,” Norrgard said.

Having been to the arctic and seen polar bears in their natural habitat, Abby Fenton, education program executive for the Will Steger Foundation, has a special affinity for the issue.

“It was something I’ll never forget,” she said. “It was thrilling and awe-inspiring, but also terrifying.”

Fenton said while she was always against drilling in the arctic, she now has an emotional connection with the issue.

“I remember this huge white bear slinging its neck back and forth, smelling the air,” she said.

Fenton said when people hear of Alaska and the arctic, they think of polar bears and not necessarily how the drilling would affect the natives.

However, oil companies are not the only ones in support of drilling in Alaska. Fenton noted some Alaskans support the drilling in the refuge.

“What does that say about the poverty levels up there?” she said.

Christopher Childs, co-chair of the Clean Air and Renewable Energy committee for the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, said it’s not a surprise to see Alaskans support the drilling.

“The economy of Alaska is so heavily oil dependent,” he said. “It’s short-term money that’s put ahead of long-term welfare for the ecosystem.”

The Sierra Club is part of the lawsuit against the Interior Department. Childs said it’s shortsighted to be drilling in Alaska for the sake of the U.S. oil addiction.

Sen. Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, on the state Environment and Natural Resources Committee, said the polar bears are threatened already by climate change.

“The last thing we need,” she said, “is more drilling which will exacerbate the pressure on this threatened species and continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction.”

According to the United States Geological Survey, polar bears could be absent from U.S. waters by 2050.