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Protection of polar bears still undecided

January 08, 2008|From the Associated Press

ANCHORAGE — Federal officials said Monday that they would need a few more weeks to decide whether polar bears needed protection under the Endangered Species Act because of global warming.

The deadline was Wednesday, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it hoped to provide a recommendation to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne so that he could decide by February.

The department has never declared a species threatened or endangered because of climate change, said H. Dale Hall, Fish and Wildlife director.

"That's why this one has been so taxing and challenging to us," he said.

Environmental groups that petitioned to protect polar bears, arguing that warming threatened their habitat, said they would go to court to ensure a timely decision.

"We certainly hope that the polar bear will be listed within the next month," said Kassie Siegel, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Listing polar bears as "threatened" with extinction could trigger limits on development, particularly oil and gas exploration and production, which could harm the animals. That listing is a step below "endangered," the most severe classification under the Endangered Species Act.

Kempthorne proposed the threatened listing for polar bears in January 2007, giving him a deadline of exactly one year for a final decision under the Endangered Species Act. The yearlong period includes an opportunity for the public to comment on the proposed listing.

In September, the U.S. Geological Survey issued a report concluding that two-thirds of the world's polar bears, including the entire population in Alaska, would be killed off by 2050 because of thinning sea ice from global warming in the Arctic.

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