From: Reuters
Published February 13, 2008 01:15 PM

Second deadline to protect polar bears missed

By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has missed its own postponed deadline to decide if polar bears need protection from climate change, and critics link the delay to an oil lease sale in a vast swath of the bear's icy habitat.

"When it comes to the survival of the polar bear, the Bush administration is putting the 'dead' back into 'deadline,"' said Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who heads a House of Representatives panel on climate change.

"Now that the Bush administration has taken care of its clear first priority -- taking care of their friends in the oil industry -- perhaps they can finally give the polar bear, and the global warming that is causing the bear's demise, the attention it is due," Markey said in a statement.

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Polar bears use sea ice as a platform for hunting seals, their main prey, and without enough ice, they are forced onto land, where they are inefficient hunters. Warmer arctic waters mean longer distances between chunks of sea ice, and video of drowning polar bears has fueled debate over their future.

The U.S. Geological Survey, in a study conducted to aid the government's decision, reported last year that all polar bears in Alaska -- about 16,000 currently -- could disappear if warming trends continue.

The Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service was required by statute to decide by January 9 whether the polar bear should be listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, but three days before that, the agency's chief told reporters the deadline would be pushed back 30 days. The second deadline passed on February 8 with no decision.

On February 6, the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service sold oil and gas rights across some 29.7 million acres

in the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast for a record $2.66 billion -- about four times what the government expected to get.

Protesters, including one in a polar bear suit, demonstrated outside the auction in Anchorage.

DECISION "SOONER RATHER THAN LATER"

Chris Tollefson, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the timing of the two events was "entirely coincidental."

"These two things have moved on somewhat parallel tracks, but really the driver in all of this has been the complexity of the issues and the science," Tollefson said on Wednesday by telephone.

He said a decision was expected "sooner rather than later" but declined to be more specific.

Environmental groups have notified the U.S. government they plan to sue if no decision is reached by 60 days after the original January deadline.

"If the Fish and Wildlife Service had protected polar bears before the lease sales were finalized, there would have been additional legal safeguards to the polar bears," said Andrew Wetzler, an attorney and endangered species specialist at Natural Resources Defense Council, a potential plaintiff.

"The illegal failure to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act gave the Minerals Management Service a pass," Wetzler said in a telephone interview.

He dismissed claims that another law, the Marine Mammals Protection Act, offers comparable safeguards. This other law does not require the same kind of consultation that the Endangered Species Act does, lacks protections for critical habitat and does not include plans for recovery, Wetzler said.

However, he doubted the Bush administration was trying to "run out the clock" so the polar bear problem lands on the next president's desk.

"The Bush administration actually did the right thing: they formally proposed listing the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act," Wetzler said. "There's no reason for them not to finalize that decision now."

(Editing by Sandra Maler)

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