According to the study published in the journal PLOS One, infrared technology mounted on airplanes missed 55 percent of dens that were known to exist west of the Alaskan refuge off Prudhoe Bay. Oil operators search for the dens to comply with a federal requirement to build roads and facilities at least a mile away from the hibernating bears, whose shrinking populations are designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Since the 1990s, mining operations have used surveillance technology known as FLIR — Forward Looking Infrared — to identify the heat signature of maternal bears that bore as deep as four meters under thick ice to give birth. But FLIR is often disrupted by bad weather that blinds it to dens in some surveys and causes it to falsely identify dens in others.
Researchers who used the surveys provided by the industry as a guide to find dens and study bears between 2004 and 2016 found at least 18 dens that the technology missed. Conversely, they said, bears didn’t occupy areas that surveys said they inhabited.
“We froze our bleeps off out there,” said Tom S. Smith, a study co-author and associate professor at Brigham Young University. “I mean, it’s rough. When someone is telling us there’s a den here and we invest a lot of time and a lot of effort and there’s nothing there, and then we’re going down the sea ice 10 miles away and there’s a den when they said there wasn’t any, we took it kind of personal. We said this is useless. This is not working.”
Smith and researchers at Polar Bears International, a nonprofit conservation group, embarked on their study of aerial surveys using FLIR. They determined the technology can easily be disrupted if surveys are conducted in windy conditions or bad winter weather on the tundra.
Patrick N. Bergt, a manager of regulatory and legal affairs for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said FLIR “is just one of many mitigation activities” used by the industry to minimize harm to polar bears. Bergt said 40 years of data collection has shown “at most, a negligible impact on polar bear populations” on the North Slope Borough, an area of Prudhoe Bay where the study was conducted.
Much of what scientists understand about polar bears “is due in large part to the funding, personnel, and cooperation of oil and gas operators” that have a long history of cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials in the area, Bergt said.
The study comes five months after the Trump administration announced a controversial proposal to allow petroleum operations in the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the most aggressive of five listed options. The proposal is in the process of being finalized, possibly by year’s end. It would be the first time exploration and drilling would be allowed in the environmentally pristine refuge, a critical habitat for polar bears.