According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, Polar Bear Habitat at Center of Drilling Debate, "Native Alaskans and environmentalists have filed a suit to prevent the federal government's sale of drilling leases in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. The sales, set to begin Wednesday, will allow drilling in about 30 million acres, including critical polar bear habitat, environmentalists say. A decision on whether to list polar bears as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is expected this week as well."
Polar bears have been at the center of recent studies of global warming, as it is believed thinning arctic sea ice may have devastating effects on polar bears. Sea ice is a vital component of the polar bears' habitat, since they use it for denning and hunting. Despite evidence that documents recent thinning of arctic sea ice, polar bear populations have been increasing in recent years. "By some estimates there were as few as 5,000 polar bears in the 1950s when hunting for sport and profit was far less regulated. Today, scientists believe there are 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears, though this is still about 60 percent below historic levels." USGS scientists warn that changes in sea-ice conditions may lead to a loss of about two-thirds of the world's polar bear population within the next 50 years.
Oil and gas industry spokesmen argue that regulatory limits on exploration activity may have only limited impact on conditions affecting the bears.