WASHINGTON - The federal government has missed its own postponed deadline to decide whether 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 Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who heads a House 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.
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 footage of drowning polar bears has fueled debate over their future.
The US Geological Survey, in a study conducted to aid the government's decision, reported last year that all the polar bears in Alaska - about 16,000 currently - could disappear if global warming trends continue.
The Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service was required by statute to decide by Jan. 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 Feb. 8, with no decision.
On Feb. 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, which was held in Anchorage.
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 yesterday by telephone.
He said a decision was expected "sooner rather than later" but declined to be more specific.
Environmental groups have notified the government they plan to sue if no decision is reached 60 days after the original January deadline.
© 2008 Reuters