From: Yereth Rosen, Reuters
Published February 15, 2007 12:00 AM

Alaska Bears, Walruses Harmed by Oil Work, Lawsuit Claims

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- A lawsuit filed by a pair of environmental groups claims the federal government has failed to properly protect polar bears and walruses from oil development as it expands on Alaska's North Slope.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through regulations that allow oilfield work that disturbs bears and walruses, is violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, said the suit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The lawsuit targets a rule issued last August by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that outlines conditions for incidental encounters with animals that accidentally kill, frighten or harm them.

Helicopters, trucks, and seismic exploration surveys are noisy enough to cause mother polar bears to flee their dens, abandoning cubs, and to frighten walruses into stampedes of the shoreline that could cause them to trample their young, said Clayton Jernigan of environmental law group Earthjustice.

Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of two California-based groups, Pacific Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity

The suit seeks to compel the Fish and Wildlife Service to study how global warming and oilfield development harms the bears and walruses.

"It's sort of a double-edged sword because of less habitat available to the bears because of ice melting and less habitat available to the bears because of industrial development," Jernigan said.

Oilfield work is more harmful now because a warming Arctic climate has melted much of the sea ice the animals need to survive, he said.

"It's improper for the agency to assume that conditions are the same as they were three years ago or five years ago or 10 years ago," Jernigan said Wednesday.

The lawsuit comes as the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to give Alaska's polar bears new protections under the Endangered Species Act because of a melting of the Arctic's sea ice.

If the proposed "threatened" listing is granted, the polar bear will be the first animal given Endangered Species Act protections because of global warming.

The lawsuit coincides with federal plans for expanded oil exploration in the Beaufort Sea, Chukchi Sea and in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods declined to comment specifically on the lawsuit but defended the rules.


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