WASHINGTON - A decision on whether to protect Alaska's polar bears under the Endangered Species Act might not come before the government opens a major bear habitat to oil leases next week, although staff recommendations are completed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chief said Wednesday.
Dale Hall, the agency's director, faced sharp criticism at a Senate hearing from lawmakers who accused the Interior Department of stalling to make it easier for oil companies to obtain drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea, where a fifth of the Arctic's polar bears depend on sea ice in their hunt for food.
Another Interior Department agency, the Minerals Management Service, plans to open a large area of the Chukchi Sea to oil and gas leases on Feb. 6.
The Chukchi Sea is home to one of two U.S. polar bear populations, and scientists say global warming is causing serious melting of Arctic sea ice, the bear's primary habitat. The department proposed possibly listing the bear as threatened - triggering greater federal protection - more than a year ago.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, demanded "a commitment to take immediate action" to protect the bear before the leasing begins and asked Hall why his agency "is dragging its feet" while the department "is moving quickly ... to allow new oil activities in one of the biological hearts of the polar bear's habitat."
"There should be no further delay," said Boxer, noting that by law the agency was to have made a decision on whether to declare the bear threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act by Jan. 9.
Hall said he could not promise a decision before Feb. 6, only that a recommendation on the bear will be sent to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne "in the very near future."
Separately, Randall Luthi, director of the minerals management agency, said Wednesday that no matter when the ESA decision is made the Chukchi Sea lease sales - originally planned for last June - will proceed as scheduled. "We think there is strong interest," in the leases by a number of major oil companies, he said in an interview with several reporters.
Luthi said a delay in the lease sale, or a decision to list the bear as threatened, could prevent oil companies from beginning exploration activities this summer, meaning a year's delay since such activities have to be done before increases in ice flow in the fall.
He said his agency has advised potential lease buyers of the possible listing of the bear under the ESA and advised them to prepare oil spill response plans and plans to limit potential encounters with bears on sea ice. A listing would require additional review of exploration and development plans by the Fish and Wildlife Service to assure bear protection.
Hall told the Senate committee the delay is not based on unresolved scientific issues, but - given the issue's high profile - a desire to assure that Congress and the public will understand the decision when it is made public.
Hall rejected suggestions of political involvement in the decision, which is the first time that a species has been considered for protection under the act because of the impact of global warming. Last September, a series of reports by the Interior Department's scientific arm concluded that as much as two-thirds of the polar bear population could disappear by mid-century because of the loss of sea ice attributed to climate change.
The recommendation will be based on "the science in front of us. That will be the basis for our decision," said Hall.
Pressed by Boxer, he acknowledged that a draft staff recommendation on the bear listing has been completed and sent to Washington in mid-December by agency scientists in Alaska - where the major scientific analysis and research has been focused.