On the heels of an “initial inquiry” launched earlier this month by the Interior Department’s inspector general, three environmental groups last week sued the Bush administration for missing a legal deadline to decide whether to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The listing likely would trigger new restrictions on oil and natural gas drilling in Alaska.

Polar bears only live in the Arctic and are totally dependent on the sea ice for all of their essential needs, according to wildlife experts. Several scientific studies indicate that the bear is under a growing threat because of a loss of habitat — Arctic sea ice — which is attributed to global warming.

The Interior Department’s inspector general on March 7 began an initial inquiry into why the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) had delayed for nearly two months a decision to list or not list the polar bear under the ESA. When the deadline arrived, the FWS said the “complexity” of the decision required another month to make a decision, but that deadline has passed (see NGI, Feb. 11; Jan. 14). A spokesman for the inspector general’s office said the inquiry is in the “very early stages” and was opened in response to a letter from environmental groups critical of the administration’s delay in making a decision. The initial inquiry will determine whether an investigation is warranted.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed their lawsuit in response to the missed deadline in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The lawsuit seeks a court order compelling the administration to issue the final decision on polar bear protection immediately.

“The Bush administration seems intent on slamming shut the narrow window of opportunity we have to save polar bears,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of a 2005 petition seeking the ESA listing. “We simply will not sit back and passively allow the administration to condemn polar bears to extinction.”

NRDC’s Andrew Wetzler, who directs the council’s Endangered Species Project, said the ESA was “absolutely unambiguous: the FWS was required to make a final decision months ago. Now it’s up to a federal court to throw this incredible animal a lifeline…”

The ESA listing process for the polar bear because of global warming was initiated with a scientific petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC and Greenpeace. The groups sued the Bush administration for failing to respond to the petition in December 2005. As a result of that first lawsuit, the FWS in February 2006 found that protection of polar bears “may be warranted” and launched a full status review of the species. A settlement agreement in that case committed the FWS to make the second of three required findings in the listing process by Dec. 27, 2007, at which time the FWS announced the proposal to list the species as threatened. By law, the FWS was required to make a final listing decision within one year of the proposal. The decision is now more than two months overdue.

Noting that the federal government initiated lease sales to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea earlier this month, Greenpeace USA research director Kert Davies said the lawsuit “has forced the Bush administration’s hand on the issue of global warming like no other, even as it rubber stamps drilling rights for Big Oil in pristine polar bear habitat. If the federal government is really serious about protecting the polar bear, then its next steps will be to cancel lease sales in the Chukchi Sea and immediately implement a plan for deep cuts in U.S. global warming pollution.”

The oil and gas industry has opposed listing the polar bear because, it argues, the population is at historically healthy levels. There are an estimated 22,000-25,000 polar bears living in the Arctic regions of Alaska and Canada.

“The Endangered Species Act is not the appropriate regulatory tool to address climate change or whatever policies that could be used to respond to perceptions on climate change,” said Richard Ranger, a senior policy adviser for the American Petroleum Institute.

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