Assessing the potential effect on polar bears had been something of a stumbling block to approving a seismic survey in the refuge. A previous proposal, put forth in 2018, was ultimately shelved as an environmental assessment and work on determining the impact on polar bears dragged on.
Under a federal law designed to protect polar bears and other marine mammals, the Interior Department, of which the Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service are a part, can authorize “incidental harassment” of a small number of animals during activities in an area like a refuge. An authorization usually involves lengthy discussion and negotiations between government scientists and those proposing the activity.
In its application, the Native village corporation that proposed the survey, the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, said it would take several steps to detect bears in their dens and avoid contact with them, including reconnaissance flights in late January, before any trucks begin operating. Such flights would use infrared cameras to detect heat from bears.
Survey crews would then establish a one-mile buffer zone around each den to avoid disturbing the bears and perhaps causing them to leave their dens, which could threaten the survival of the cubs.
A study published this year questioned the effectiveness of airborne thermal cameras. It found that over more than a decade using them on the North Slope of Alaska, oil companies located fewer than half of the known dens of maternal bears and their infant cubs.
The village corporation’s proposal originally called for a single reconnaissance flight. But the Fish and Wildlife Service said that the proposal now included three flights, all of which would occur before trucks entered the refuge. On average, dens on the coastal plain are covered by less than 100 centimeters, or about 39 inches, of snow, the service said, and having three flights “increases the likelihood of detecting dens at less than 100 cm deep to 98 percent.”
Environmental groups have also objected to the plan for a seismic survey because of the potential damage heavy trucks could do to the delicate Arctic tundra, even under snow cover. Tracks from the only other survey conducted there, in the 1980s, are still visible today.