TESTIMONY OF H. DALE HALL, DIRECTOR, U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE, DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, BEFORE THE U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES SELECT COMMITTEE ON ENERGY INDEPENDENCE AND GLOBAL WARMING ON POLAR BEARS AND MINERAL LEASING ON THE OUTER CONTINENTAL SHELF IN ALASKA
January 17, 2008
Chairman Markey, Ranking Member Sensenbrenner, and Members of the Select Committee, I am H. Dale Hall, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), and I appreciate the opportunity to testify today before you regarding both the proposal to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the current protections Federal law provides polar bear under laws such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
As Committee Members are aware, on January 9, 2007, the Service proposed to list the polar bear under the ESA as “Threatened” throughout its range after a scientific review of the polar bear found that populations may be threatened by receding sea ice habitat. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform for many activities essential to their life cycle, especially hunting for their main prey, arctic seals.
Under the ESA, a species may be a threatened or endangered species based on one or more of the following five factors:
This determination is to be based on the best scientific and commercial data available. The determination may be based on any of these factors or a combination of the factors. The ESA does not discriminate between natural or manmade causes.
In September 2007, USGS scientists supplied their new research to the Service. This research developed ecoregions for polar bears and determined how the observed and projected changes in sea ice translate into changes in polar bear habitat availability. It updated population information on polar bears of the Southern Beaufort Sea of Alaska, and provided new information on the status of two other polar bear populations. USGS studies also provided additional data on arctic climate and sea ice trends and projected effects to polar bear numbers throughout the species’ range over various time periods and scenarios of projected trends.
As a result of the new USGS research findings, the Service reopened and later extended a second comment period, which closed on October 22, 2007, to allow the public time to review and respond to the USGS findings. At the time the decision was made to reopen and extend the comment period, I alerted the Department that the Service might need extra time to adequately evaluate and incorporate results from the comments received. The Service received numerous comments on the USGS reports and has been working to incorporate the USGS findings as well as to analyze and respond to the information provided during this extended comment period.
Part of the discussion today centers on possible oil and gas development activities occurring in polar bear habitat. As the Service noted in its January 9 finding and proposed rule, a review of various factors led to a determination that these activities do not threaten polar bears throughout all or a significant portion of its range. These factors included: (1) mitigation measures in place and likely used in the future, including mitigation measures required under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA); (2) historical information on development activities; (3) the lack of direct, quantifiable effects to habitat from these activities noted to date; and (4) because of the localized nature of development activities or possible events such as oil spills.
Existing regulations and authorizations under MMPA that have been issued to oil and gas operators contain mitigation measures to ensure that any adverse effect on polar bears will be limited strictly to low levels, monitored, and reported. These protections are reviewed at five-year periods, at a maximum, to ensure mitigation measures are updated, as needed. In particular, the incidental take provisions of the MMPA ensure that any population-level effects on the species will be negligible and will not have an unmitigable negative effect on the availability of the species for subsistence use by Alaska Natives.
The Department also prepares an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), under the National Environmental Policy Act and Departmental policy, which serves to evaluate the potential effects of exploration and development activities that could result from a lease sale. The EIS process incorporates extensive coordination with the State and local agencies, Alaska Natives, and other Federal agencies. Other consultations and reviews occur under many other authorities including, for Outer Continental shelf lease sales, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Coastal Zone Management Act.