JUNEAU, Alaska — An Alaska Native corporation said it was unable to meet a deadline for aerial surveys of polar bear dens in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge because a federal agency did not issue the necessary authorization in a timely manner.
The Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. also took issue with what it calls a “blatant mischaracterization” of what happened and says it is owed an apology.
On Saturday, Melissa Schwartz, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Interior, said the corporation had confirmed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials that den detection surveys had not been conducted by a Feb. 13 deadline.
The corporation was told “their request is no longer actionable, and the Service does not intend to issue or deny the authorization,” she said. Her comments echoed those of Regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Gregory Siekaniec in a letter to corporation President Matthew Rexford a day earlier.
The corporation had sought authorization from the agency for activities that could disturb polar bears as part of a broader proposal to conduct what are known as seismic surveys to search for oil and gas deposits within the refuge’s coastal plain.
In December, the Fish and Wildlife Service released for comment a proposed authorization that would allow for “incidental harassment” of polar bears in the coastal plain during a set period for seismic work. More than 6 million comments were received, according to Siekaniec.
In his letter, Siekaniec said the agency was unable to review and consider all the comments and “make appropriate refinements” to the proposed authorization and supporting documents before a "key milestone” in the corporation's request, noting the Feb. 13 deadline.
Rexford, in a response to the regional director, said the corporation had gotten conflicting messages on the status of that review. He said that the agency had failed his corporation and community. Kaktovik is on the northern edge of the refuge, on the Beaufort Sea coast.
He told The Associated Press the corporation is evaluating its next steps.
Schwartz on Friday declined comment beyond her previous statement.
President Joe Biden’s administration last month announced plans for a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the refuge after the Trump administration issued leases in a part of the region considered sacred by the Indigenous Gwich’in. The Interior Department says none of the lands proposed for seismic survey activity are within the area that has been leased.
Pending lawsuits have challenged the adequacy of the environmental review process undertaken by the Trump administration.
Becky Bohrer, The Associated Press