U.S. Delays Polar Bear Listing Decision

January 7, 2008

The U.S. government today postponed a final decision on whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

The delay stems from a backlog of work, not scientific uncertainty or a pending lease sale for oil and gas development in polar bear habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said during a telephone press briefing.

The service said it will miss its original Wednesday deadline but plans to make a formal recommendation within 30 days. No firm decision date was set, however.

Evaluation of a suite of reports from the U.S. Geological Survey that concluded two-thirds of the world's polar bears could go extinct by 2050 prompted the delay, the service said.

The studies were completed last September, but in response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopened and extended a public comment period on the findings.

Evaluation of the new science and the comments it generated is still going on, Dale Hall, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said during the briefing.

"While we do not like missing time lines that are called for under the act, it is far more important to us to get a right answer and have it explained properly to the public," he said. "So we'll be needing to take some extra time here to finish that up."

Scott Bergen is a landscape ecologist with the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and a contributing author to the U.S. Geological Survey polar bear studies. He said he is disappointed with the delay.

"At least with the scientific team I was involved with, it was pretty clear, especially with the polar bear population that exists in Alaska, that they are in danger," he said. "I'm hoping this delay is temporary and only 30 days."

Lawsuit and Suspicions

A coalition of environmental groups said today they will file a lawsuit notice Wednesday to enforce the deadline. The groups are suspicious the delay is political, not scientific.

For example, the U.S. Mineral Management Service announced last week that it will hold a final lease sale for oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea off the northwestern Alaskan coast, which is polar bear habitat. The sale is slated to happen on February 6.

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