The Department of the Interior wants ten more weeks to decide whether polar bears should be listed as threatened or endangered.
In the court filing, Assistant Interior Secretary Lyle Laverty tied the delay to "the complexity of the legal and scientific issues," including the need to review about 670,000 public comments and government reports.
But conservation groups condemned the move as being tied to the transfer of offshore petroleum leases in one of the animals' two U.S. habitats.
Three groups sued the department after it missed its January 9 deadline for a final decision.
The petition to list polar bears seeks additional protections because of the threat to the bears' sea ice habitat due to global warming.
In a reply to the lawsuit issued yesterday, Laverty said the proposed listing raises "significant and complex factual and legal issues."
But a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity—one of the groups involved in the suit—said the government's request falls outside requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
"These are not questions for attorneys," said Kassie Siegel, the principal author on the petition seeking protections for polar bears. "They're questions for scientists."
Bears vs. Leases
Last year a set of government studies concluded that polar bears could go extinct by 2050 if global warming continues to melt Arctic sea ice, which the bears rely on for hunting.
Summer sea ice last year shrank to a record low, about 1.93 million square miles (5.01 million square kilometers).
Alaska has the only two polar bear populations in the United States: the Beaufort Sea group off the state's north coast and the Chukchi Sea group, shared with Russia.
Siegal said the request for more time is likely a tactic by political appointees to delay a decision until the Minerals Management Service can finish issuing offshore petroleum leases in the Chukchi Sea.
The delay is meant to protect the leases from legal challenges, the groups claim.
The conservation groups said they would ask for an agency decision no later than a week after a court hearing on May 8 before U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilkin in Oakland, California.
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