Comment letter on Docket No. FWS-R7-ES-2021-0037 related to ITR authorizations

of the Pacific walrus and the polar bear on the North Slope of Alaska


July 1, 2021

Public Comments Processing
Attn: Docket No. FWS-R7-ES-2021-0037
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
5275 Leesburg Pike
Falls Church, VA 22041-3803

Submitted via

Re: Support for approval of Docket No. FWS-R7-ES-2021-0037 related to ITR authorizations of the Pacific walrus and the polar bear on the North Slope of Alaska

To Whom It May Concern:

The Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc. (RDC) is writing to comment on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) proposed rule; notice of availability of draft environmental assessment; and request for comments on the proposed incidental take regulations (ITR) to authorize the nonlethal, incidental, unintentional take of small numbers of Pacific walruses (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) and polar bears (Ursus maritimus) during oil and gas industry activities in the Beaufort Sea and adjacent northern coast of Alaska, not including lands within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for a 5-year period.

RDC is a statewide trade association comprised of individuals and companies from Alaska’s fishing, forestry, mining, oil and gas, and tourism industries. RDC’s membership includes Alaska Native corporations, local communities, organized labor, and industry support firms. RDC’s purpose is to encourage a strong, diversified private sector in Alaska and expand the state’s economic base through the responsible development of our natural resources.

RDC supports the USFWS proposal to issue regulations authorizing the nonlethal, incidental, unintentional take by harassment of small numbers of polar bears and Pacific walruses during year-round oil and gas industry activities in the Beaufort Sea (Alaska and the Outer Continental Shelf) and adjacent northern coast of Alaska. According to USFWS, take may result from oil and gas exploration, development, production, and transportation activities occurring for a period of five years. The activities will be similar to activities covered by the previous five year Beaufort Sea incidental take regulations effective from August 5, 2016, through August 5, 2021. The proposed rule would authorize take by harassment only. No lethal take would be authorized. 

RDC believes the process for developing the current ITRs was a robust process, and the current ITRs should be renewed. Further, RDC believes USFWS correctly concluded that the oil and gas activities covered by the proposal will: 

  • Affect only “small numbers” of polar bears and walruses,
  • Have no more than a “negligible impact” on those populations, and 
  • NOT lead to an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of these populations for subsistence uses by Alaska Native people and local communities. 

These findings are well-supported by data collected for decades on the North Slope, and are consistent with similar findings that have been made by USFWS in numerous ITRs going back to the 1990s for both the Beaufort Sea and Chukchi Sea. Legal challenges to past ITRs have resulted in the ITRs being fully upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

 Although FWS has used a conservative model that overestimates the amount of polar bear incidental take that may occur during the five-year period, RDC agrees with USFWS’s conclusion that oil and gas activities on the North Slope will not have significant impacts to the polar bear population, which is consistent with decades of data and observations. 

RDC urges USFWS to consider the longstanding efforts of the oil and gas industry to sustain a North Slope mitigation and monitoring program that has historically been effective in coordinating industry activities and polar bear conservation. For decades, North Slope operators have implemented mitigation and monitoring measures that have proven to be highly effective in limiting marine mammal impacts to no more than a negligible level. USFWS has evaluated and confirmed this conclusion in multiple public documents and decisions under multiple federal administrations. 

Like the current and past ITRs, the proposed ITR authorizes only “Level B harassment” of polar bears and walruses. This type of take involves only temporary behavioral disturbance of small numbers of polar bears and walruses. The proposed ITR does not authorize the injury or killing of any animals, nor has any other ITR issued over the decades in which this MMPA regulatory framework has been implemented for North Slope activities. 

Finally, the proposed ITR should be finalized as soon as possible, as doing so will preserve a long-term regulatory framework that gives certainty to the regulated industry and continues the system of successful mitigation measures that have proven benefits for polar bears. The proposed ITR, and the ITRs before it, demonstrate that the various conservation measures taken by the oil and gas industry on the North Slope result in negligible impacts to the environment, wildlife, and subsistence harvest by local communities. This regulatory framework is also reflective of a productive scientific collaboration between government and industry that has generated an unprecedented dataset to inform decision-making and advance knowledge about polar bears and their habitat. 

Thank you for your consideration of our comments on this important authorization.