WASHINGTON - A decision on whether to protect Alaska's polar bears under the Endangered Species Act might not come before the government opens a major bear habitat to oil leases next week, although staff recommendations are completed, the US Fish and Wildlife Service chief said yesterday.
Dale Hall, the agency's director, faced sharp criticism at a Senate hearing from lawmakers who accused the Interior Department of stalling to make it easier for oil companies to obtain drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea, where a fifth of the Arctic's polar bears depend on sea ice in their hunt for food.Another Interior Department agency, the Minerals Management Service, plans to open a large area of the Chukchi Sea to oil and gas leases on Feb. 6.
The Chukchi Sea is home to one of two US polar bear populations, and scientists say global warming is causing serious melting of Arctic sea ice, the bear's primary habitat. The department proposed possibly listing the bear as threatened - triggering greater federal protection - more than a year ago.
Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who is chairwoman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, demanded "a commitment to take immediate action" to protect the bear before the leasing begins and asked Hall why his agency "is dragging its feet" while the department "is moving quickly . . . to allow new oil activities in one of the biological hearts of the polar bear's habitat."
"There should be no further delay," said Boxer, noting that by law the agency was to have made a decision on whether to declare the bear threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act by Jan. 9.
Hall said he could not promise a decision before Feb. 6, only that a recommendation on the bear will be sent to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne "in the very near future."
Separately, Randall Luthi, director of the minerals management agency, said yesterday that no matter when the Endangered Species Act decision is made the Chukchi Sea lease sales - originally planned for last June - will proceed as scheduled. Luthi said a delay in the lease sale, or a decision to list the bear as threatened, could prevent oil companies from beginning exploration activities this summer, meaning a year's delay since such activities have to be done before increases in ice flow in the fall.
© 2008 Associated Press