October 7, 2008

Protecting Critical Habitat For Polar Bears

Three conservation groups have reached a settlement with federal officials on polar bear habitat.

The agreement could add restrictions to future petroleum exploration or drilling off Alaska's coast; it sets deadlines for the Interior Department secretary to designate "critical habitat" for polar bears.

The designation stops federal agencies from doing anything that may "adversely modify" critical habitat that could interfere with polar bear recovery.

Those actions could include offshore petroleum exploration or drilling, said Kassie Siegel, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

"Other than global warming, the worst thing that's going on in polar bear habit right now is oil development and the potential for oil spills," Siegel said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage would not discuss the settlement filed in U.S. District Court in Oakland, Calif.

The lawsuit was filed in March after Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne did not meet the deadline for declaring polar bears threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Kempthorne declared them "threatened," or likely to become endangered," on May 14.

He cited polar bears' need for sea ice, the dramatic loss of sea ice in recent decades and computer models that suggest sea ice is likely to further recede in the future.

Siegel said critical habitat is supposed to be designated at the same time a species is listed as threatened or endangered. Her group, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace sued to force a designation.

The agreement sets a deadline of June 30, 2010, for a final rule designating critical habitat for the polar bear.

According to conservation groups, the settlement does not address their claim that Kempthorne violated the Endangered Species Act by listing the polar bear as "threatened" rather than "endangered."

They say he violated the law by issuing a special rule exempting polar bears from protections otherwise provided by the Endangered Species Act.

The case is expected to be heard early next year in federal district court in Oakland.

Five separate lawsuits have been filed in Washington, D.C., to overturn the listing of polar bears as threatened.

One was filed by the state of Alaska on orders of Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate.


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