ANCHORAGE - Two conservation groups are challenging the Bush administration's recent decision to let oil companies unintentionally harass or harm polar bears and walruses in the growing pursuit of fossil fuels off the northwestern Alaska coast.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Anchorage, Pacific Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity alleged that federal officials violated laws designed to protect the animals and their sensitive habitat in the Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea.
"These regulations set the parameters for how oil exploration will be done in the next five years," said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The Chukchi Sea is critical habitat for those animals. For them to survive in the face of global warming, we simply cannot allow oil development there."
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to grant legal protection to seven oil companies in the Chukchi over the next five years should they accidentally harm "small numbers" of polar bears or Pacific walruses during the course of drilling and other exploratory activities. The agency is named as a defendent in the suit, along with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials believe oil and gas exploration will have a negligible effect on the bear and walrus populations. It is global warming, they say, that will most likely cause the animals' numbers to dwindle.
Under the harassment permits, oil companies are required to report all sightings of polar bears and walrus, said Fish and Wildlife spokesman Bruce Woods. The agency treats such reports as valuable data because research in the remote region is often prohibitively expensive.
"Our biologists feel this regulation program is a valuable conservation tool," Woods said. "The companies have to report every sighting and what measures they took to avoid disturbing the animals and what the response was. They give us information on the location and actions of the animals that we might not otherwise have."
About 2,000 of the 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic live in and around the Chukchi Sea, where the government in February auctioned off oil leases to Shell Oil Co., ConocoPhillips Co., and five other companies for $2.6 billion. Over objections from environmentalists and members of Congress, the sale occurred before the bear was classified as threatened in May.
The groups say the Chukchi is also home to nearly the entire female population of Pacific walrus.
The agency has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court.