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Suppressed Study Shows Polar Bears at Risk from Alaska Oil and Gas Drilling

A senior Trump administration official is delaying release of a science study that shows how Alaska oil and gas drilling would encroach on the territory of endangered polar bears, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post.

“The study has been ready for at least three months,” the Post reports. But “in an unusual move, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Director James Reilly has refused to make public the study, by his own scientists, of the number of female polar bears that den and give birth on land near the southern Beaufort Sea.”

The analysis “has implications for leasing drilling rights on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, because it finds that 34% of the western U.S. Arctic’s maternal dens lie on the refuge’s coastal plain,” the paper writes. “That is the same area the Interior Department approved for leasing in August.”

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“The long-term persistence of polar bears (Ursus maritimus) is threatened by sea-ice loss due to climate change, which is concurrently providing an opportunity in the Arctic for increased anthropogenic activities including natural resource extraction,” the report states.

The report’s absence from the official record may be holding up approval of a US$3-billion fossil drilling project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, the Post says, but Reilly is trying to work around that snag. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is legally required to cite the USGS study before it can determine whether drilling can proceed without causing too much harm to the region’s polar bears,” The Post explains. But Reilly, a former astronaut, “has asked his staff why Fish and Wildlife officials ‘need a published version of this report’ to proceed, according to an August 20 memo.”

But the actual findings would not halt oil and gas leasing in the refuge, said Rosa Meehan, former division chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Marine Mammals Program in Alaska, even though they show fossil exploration having an impact on polar bear mothers and cubs. “Having this activity in maternal denning habitat means the activity is concentrated on the most vulnerable part of the population,” she told the Post.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director for Defenders of Wildlife, accused the Trump administration of hiding key data on a southern Beaufort bear population that is down to just 900 animals, 573 of them in Alaska. “The report underscores that the southern Beaufort Sea polar bear population is facing a dual threat due to climate change and oil and gas drilling,” she told the paper. “Suppressing reports by career scientists is a dangerous way to make policy and a waste of American taxpayer money.”