ANCHORAGE - Two conservation groups have given the federal government formal notice they intend to sue to protect polar bears from petroleum exploration and drilling off Alaska's coast.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Environment said Monday they will sue under the Endangered Species Act to protect polar bears, which were listed as threatened last month by Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
Polar bears are threatened - likely to become endangered - because their sea ice habitat has melted dramatically and computer models predict further losses, Kempthorne said. Summer sea ice last year shrunk to about 1.65 million square miles, nearly 40 percent less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000.
Polar bears use sea ice for mating, denning and hunting their primary prey, ringed seals.
However, Kempthorne said the best scientific judgments did not find polar bears were threatened by oil and gas development.
The conservation groups do not agree.
Whit Sheard of Pacific Environment in Alaska said Bush administration officials have been so keen to grant offshore leases, they have not given proper consideration to the potential harm to polar bears.
"Instead of actively seeking to protect polar bears, they've been aggressively seeking to promote oil and gas development in polar bear habitat," Sheard said.
Unilaterally zoning the Arctic for oil drilling is the opposite of sound management, Sheard said.
The groups are not seeking to shut down offshore drilling, he said, but will sue to ensure that the government follows requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
Alaska has two populations of polar bears. The Chukchi and Bering sea population off the state's northwest coast is shared with Russia. The southern Beaufort Sea population off the state's north coast is shared with Canada.
According to the conservation groups, the Bush administration has opened up virtually all of Alaska polar bear habitat to leasing. The most recent lease sale was in February, when the Minerals Management Service took in high bids of nearly $2.7 billion on 2.76 million acres, or about 4,300 square miles, of Chukchi Sea ocean bottom.
The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to ensure that any action they carry out does not jeopardize a listed species, said Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. All ongoing federally authorized offshore oil-industry actions affecting the polar bear, from exploration plans to seismic surveys, must be re-examined, Cummings said. Seismic surveys involve loud air guns.
"Safety zones and protections that are theoretically in place simply don't work," he said.
Boats, aircraft and drilling platforms will add to bears' stress by causing them to flee and expend more energy, Cummings said.
"These are animals that because of global warming are food-stressed and they're simply in worse physical condition than they would be in an otherwise intact Arctic," he said.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods said Monday oil and gas development were not seen as a major factor in the listing decision. Since 1993, when the agency began issuing incidental take permits for petroleum exploration, there has not been a single polar bear or walrus death attributable to oil and gas development, he said.