Comment letter on Seismic Survey Design and Impacts to Maternal Polar Bear Dens” and the associated analytical model

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April 20, 2020 

Marine Mammals Management
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
1011 East Tudor Road, MS 341
Anchorage, AK 99503 

Re: “Seismic Survey Design and Impacts to Maternal Polar Bear Dens” and the associated analytical model

To Whom It May Concern: 

The Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc. (RDC) is writing to express concerns and endorse the technical comments of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association (AOGA) on the “Seismic Survey Design and Impacts to Maternal Polar Bear Dens” and the associated analytical model.

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.

As you know, the manuscript evaluates how various seismic survey designs and mitigation measures could affect maternal denning polar bears in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

The oil and gas industry formed a working group to review the manuscript and conduct a technical critique of the model’s assumptions. The industry’s vast experience and knowledge of development activities on the North Slope uniquely positions it to provide informed and constructive comments on the model referenced in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) solicitation for comments. In its review, the working group found many of the model’s assumptions to be overly conservative and a number not supported by the science. As a result, these assumptions skew the model, leading to a distorted conclusion.  

The oil and gas industry has operated on the North Slope for decades under Marine Mammal Protection Act authorizations for both incidental and intentional (e.g. hazing to protect human life) “taking” of polar bears. Through these regulatory programs, the industry has gained extensive experience implementing mitigation measures to protect polar bears and carrying out monitoring and reporting on polar bear behavior and dens. The industry’s monitoring database spans three decades and includes thousands of polar bear observations. The USFWS has found that these programs are effective and that industry activities have only a “negligible impact” on polar bears. Meanwhile, the industry continues to invest in improvements to monitoring and mitigation techniques.

Primary concerns with proposed model
One of our primary concerns is that the USFWS through this process is setting the stage for disturbance to be evaluated as a worst-case scenario, therefore assuming den abandonment and cub mortality, even though substantial evidence shows that activity can occur close to dens without causing disturbance. When disturbance does occur, industry has demonstrated it has the ability to apply measures that can prevent cub mortality.

The Wilson model was designed for a well-defined seismic program during the denning season in an area of very low human activity and completely devoid of industrial infrastructure. However, the manuscript suggests that the structure of this model could be suitable to evaluating other projects on the North Slope. We have concerns about using this methodology to analyze projects or activities near existing oilfields. 

Polar bears with dens near industry operations are less likely to be disturbed because they have an increased tolerance to activities. The model should factor in the variability of tolerance for bears who select den sites near established infrastructure. Moreover, it is important that the model includes input from industry to ensure that what is being modeled is realistic and feasible from an operational point of view. Routes for seismic testing need to be placed in areas that are feasible from a geomorphic point of view to avoid potentially overestimating the amount of denning habitat impacted.

While limiting the overlap of denning habitat and seasonal timing with industry is a valuable tool, it is often impossible to complete the work on the North Slope outside of the denning season. However, industry has been working in polar bear habitat for over 40 years and has developed robust mitigation and monitoring tools to reduce disturbance, particularly in the denning season. Industry conducts surveys using a variety of tools to identify potential dens. When dens are identified, measures are immediately taken to mitigate disturbance. Therefore, RDC urges the USFWS to not consider temporal restrictions without consulting with industry to ensure what is being modeled is feasible operationally. 

The USFWS interpretation of the model conservatively assumes that any activity within 1-mile will result in disturbance and abandonment of the den. However, our industry members insist the best available science does not necessarily support this assumption. They recommend the model should instead consider the type of activity and distance from the den instead of assuming all activity results in disturbance/abandonment. AOGA has cited a number of studies demonstrating that detectability of industrial activities in dens depends on the type of activity and that dens reduce low frequency sounds. 

There have been a number of instances where dens were discovered near North Slope operations. Industry expediently enacted a number of mitigation measures to avoid further disturbances. These instances highlight that much can be done after an initial disturbance to reduce disturbance, keeping the bears in their den until they are ready to leave. 

In a database dating back 25 years, thousands of polar bear observations were documented on the North Slope. To our knowledge, there is not a single documented instance of den abandonment, cub mortality, or other impacts to polar bears arising from a seismic survey that could be characterized as a Level A harassment, defined as having the potential to injure a marine mammal.

RDC would like to point out that the current Beaufort Sea Incidental Take Regulations (81 FR 52276) highlight several instances of maternal dens occurring near industry operations and state that mitigation measures “can minimize impacts to the animals and allow the female bear to naturally abandon the den when she chooses.”

In its comments, AOGA outlined various measures that either are taking place or may be adopted to mitigate the effects of disturbance and protect cubs. Mitigation and monitoring methods to identify and avoid disruptions to polar bears and denning include additional aerial infrared surveys to the use of scent-trained dogs, alternative technologies, and a well-trained workforce. Aerial infrared surveys have detected artificial dens with measured ceiling thickness in excess of 100 cm and true polar bear dens in adverse conditions. Additional infrared surveys could increase the proportion of dens detected and should be incorporated into the model when evaluating projects.

RDC agrees with AOGA that existing and additional mitigation measures should be closely examined prior to the use of this model either for the seismic program described in the manuscript or for future use as a management tool. Consideration of mitigation measures should be included in analyzing any project expected to impact polar bears. 

Community impacts
Another primary concern of RDC is the potential use of the Wilson model as a management tool of community activity on the North Slope. If the USFWS elected to use the Wilson model to manage existing and future community activity, essential goods and services to support local communities would be severely impacted. Numerous research studies would be determined to be harmful to denning bears, aircraft travel could be prohibited in many areas, and development could be limited. 

Use of the model for all activity across the North Slope would have a significant detrimental effect on business and the way of life on the North Slope. In addition, the expansion of community infrastructure including over-land transportation connectivity between villages could be shut down. These are serious concerns of our members on the North Slope and elsewhere in Alaska.

In summary, the Wilson model did not include the entire suite of mitigation and management tools required by the USFWS and utilized as part of industry best practices. Moreover, the results of the model remain unvalidated since the proposed seismic program did not take place. 

Given the flaws captured in AOGA’s comments and the limitations of the model, as well as potential application of the model to other industry and community activity elsewhere on the North Slope, RDC does not support use of the Wilson model as a management tool for future activities. 

Thank you for the opportunity to submit comments on this important issue.