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Federal biologists cite potential harm to wildlife from proposed Arctic refuge oil drilling

Posted: Friday, March 29, 2002

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Caribou and other wildlife are vulnerable and may face substantial risk if oil is developed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, according to a study by government scientists.

The findings by Interior Department and U.S. Geological Survey biologists paint a more threatening picture to wildlife than drilling advocates have portrayed should Congress lift its long-standing ban on development of the refuge.

The Bush administration on Friday pointed to the report's conclusions that risks to wildlife -- including musk-oxen, polar bears and migrating birds -- could be reduced by restricting and closely managing oil exploration and production.

''The report bolsters the administration's mandate that ANWR production must require the most stringent environmental protections ever imposed. It demonstrates that with new technology, tough regulations and commonsense management, we can protect wildlife and produce energy,'' said Mark Pfeifle, a spokesman for the Interior Department.

Pfeifle said that conclusion is further supported by the report's estimates that more than 80 percent of the oil is located in a northwest portion of the refuge.

Still the report, a copy of which was obtained late Thursday by The Associated Press, is likely to provide new ammunition to those vowing to block efforts in Congress next month to allow oil companies into the refuge.

''Once again the administration has released a report undermining its own case,'' said Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., claiming the findings confirm ''the environmental destruction that would occur'' if the refuge were opened to oil development.

Recently, an Energy Department report suggested that oil from the refuge would provide only modest reductions in U.S. oil imports.

Drilling in ANWR, as the refuge is called, is a top energy priority of the White House.

While the study makes no recommendation on whether the refuge should be developed, it concludes that the region's wildlife are especially vulnerable to the kinds of disturbances that development may bring.

For example, it concludes that the Porcupine caribou herd, which uses the coastal plain for calving each summer, ''may be particularly sensitive to development'' because it has little quality habitat elsewhere and historically it has been shown that calf survival is linked to the animals' ability to move freely.

The 78-page report is based on an examination of 12 years of research into wildlife activities and the ecology of the Arctic refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain -- the area that also may contain about 11.4 billion barrels of oil.

As with the case of the caribou, the study found that development of the refuge's coastal plain may pose risks to other wildlife:

--The musk-oxen was described as particularly ''vulnerable to disturbances'' from oil and gas exploration because they live in the region year-round, including winter when exploration would be most intense.

--Snow geese, among the millions of migratory birds on the coastal plain, may be displaced because of increased activity, including air traffic. It cannot be assumed the geese will find adequate feeding areas elsewhere, the study says.

--Denning polar bears, another fixture on the coastal plain, also might be adversely affected, the assessment said, but added in this case ''aggressive and proactive management'' of the development could minimize -- or even eliminate -- most of the problem.

As for the caribou, the report said ''oil development will most likely result in restricting the location of concentrated calving areas'' and lead to fewer calves being able to survive and, in turn, possibly a decline in the herd.

In a memo to Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Charles Groat, said he wanted to ''clarify certain aspects'' of the report, including that the research also showed ''with mitigation the effect of human development ... could be minimal'' where most wildlife are concerned.

But Groat acknowledged that adverse risks to the Porcupine caribou ''would depend on the type of development and where the development occurred.''

Norton repeatedly has argued that modern drilling techniques can minimize the intrusion into what environmentalists view as one of the world's most pristine and ecologically significant areas.

Kenneth Whitten, a retired Alaska state biologist who participated in writing the chapter on the caribou, said some of the mitigation proposals are unrealistic.

In case of polar bears, Whitten said, ''we don't know where all the dens are. Almost surely during winter we'll be disturbing bears'' during oil exploration.

''There's intense pressure within the Department of Interior to come up with findings of no impact,'' Whitten added.

Bill Seiz, the regional director of the U.S. Geological Survey in Alaska, acknowledged ''there are risks'' to the wildlife, but those can be controlled depending on how development occurs.

The report ''doesn't make any judgment about development,'' said Seiz. ''It looks at basic science, the things that ought to be looked at if the area is to be developed.''

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Associated Press writer John Heilprin contributed to this report.

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