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Report: Good Practices Could Protect Wildlife Near Alaska Drilling

Opponents to drilling in Alaska's protected wildlife region may find troubling a U.S. Geological Survey report that says threats to wildlife from oil exploration could be reduced by close management and restrictions on oil producers.

The government scientists acknowledged that the threat to caribou, musk-oxen, polar bears, and migrating birds would be significant if care was not taken to protect the wildlife while drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife refuge. However, they say, research has indicated that "with mitigation the effect of human development ... could be minimal."

U.S. Geological Survey Director Charles Groat added that adverse risks to the porcupine caribou "would depend on the type of development and where the development occurred," but he wanted to "clarify certain aspects" of the report.

Opponents to drilling say the report, which describes the risks to each of the species that inhabit the area, does more harm than good to the Bush administration's case for drilling.

"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.

Among the research in the 78-page report — based on 12 years of study — is the finding that  musk-oxen would be "vulnerable to disturbances" from oil and gas exploration because they inhabit the region year-round, including winter months when exploration would be most intense.

The report said snow geese, among the millions of migratory birds on the coastal plain, may be displaced because of increased activity, including air traffic, and may not be able to find other adequate feeding areas. Caribou are also threatened.

"Oil development will most likely result in restricting the location of concentrated calving areas" and lead to fewer calves being able to survive, which could lead to a a decline in the herd.

Polar bears, also found in the 1.5-million acre coastal plan, may be protected through "aggressive and proactive management" of the development, and may not be threatened at all.

Kenneth Whitten, a retired Alaska state biologist who participated in writing the chapter on the caribou, said the conclusion about polar bears may be unrealistic because "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 that these risks could 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."

The White House has made drilling in ANWR a top policy priority, and Interior Secretary Gale Norton has repeatedly said that modern drilling techniques can minimize the intrusion into pristine areas.

Interior spokesman Mark Pfeifle said the Interior Department will be sure to put limits on oil development, including a compromise that oil production be limited to winter should Congress lift the ban on drilling and allow development to proceed.

"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," Pfeifle said.

Pfeifle said Norton also supports limiting the "footprint" or surface area that would be used for exploration.  The Interior Department has said the footprint is comparable to placing Washington's Dulles International Airport into the state of South Carolina.

The study does not include a recommendation on whether drilling should take place in the refuge.  The Energy Department says oil to be extracted could be equal 11.4 billion barrels of oil, and could help the United States reduce reliance on foreign sources.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.