Alaska files suit against feds over polar bear habitat status

187,157 SQUARE MILES: Parnell says designation could block development.

March 9, 2011 

The state of Alaska on Wednesday filed its second lawsuit over polar bears, claiming the federal government's designation of critical habitat for the animals -- an area larger than California -- is excessive and unnecessary.

The state two years ago challenged the federal government's designation of polar bears as a threatened species. That lawsuit is pending before a federal judge in Washington, D.C.

The habitat lawsuit was filed in Anchorage and takes issue with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designating 187,157 square miles as critical habitat for the bears, part of the recovery plan required by law for a species declared threatened or endangered.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association sued over the habitat issue last week and said it will have economic effects in the tens of millions to billions of dollars. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell echoed the trade group by saying the designation will mean more red tape for development projects such as offshore drilling.

"The additional regulations, consultations, and likely litigation that would be triggered by this habitat designation would simply delay jobs, and increase the costs of, or even prevent, resource development projects that are crucial for the state," he said in the lawsuit announcement. "All this with no material improvement in polar bear habitat."

Polar bears already are protected by state laws, the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act and international agreements, Parnell said.

The Interior Department announced its critical habitat designation in November. It includes large areas of sea ice off the Alaska coast, including areas where petroleum companies hope to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Designation of critical habitat does not automatically block development but requires federal officials to consider whether a proposed action would adversely affect polar bear habitat and interfere with its recovery.

The state contends that the Fish and Wildlife Service designated areas in which little evidence exists of the physical or biological features that are essential to polar bear conservation. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell said there's an apparent motive to designate the polar bear's entire range.

"This would be akin to designating the entire migratory pathway for a listed migratory bird species, including the air it might occupy," she said.

The Interior Department under former President George W. Bush declared polar bears a threatened species in 2008 because of diminishing sea ice. Polar bears use sea ice to breed and hunt. Their main prey is ringed seals.

A spokesman for the group that petitioned to list polar bears, the Center for Biological Diversity, said individual animals can cover hundreds of square miles.

"When you have a species that wanders wide distances, obviously it needs large areas of land or ice," said attorney Brendan Cummings. He said the state's argument is flawed.

"They do not have an explanation and I don't see how they can rationally explain how sea ice is not essential," he said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods said the agency does not comment on pending or active litigation.

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