Alaska plans to sue over polar bear decision

Patti Epler

Gov. Sean Parnell says the state will file a lawsuit against the federal government over the designation of a California-sized swath of Alaska's far north coast as critical polar bear habitat.

The state notified Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday of its intent to sue. The case would be filed in 60 days unless the federal government addresses Alaska's concerns.

The critical habitat designation is at the center of a legal and political brouhaha over offshore oil development in the Arctic. Shell Offshore Inc. is seeking federal permission to sink an exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea this summer and oil companies have long wanted to work offshore in both the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, in the middle of polar bear territory.

Environmental organizations have sued under the Endangered Species Act and forced the federal government to declare the polar bear -- and a couple other species -- threatened, resulting in the critical habitat designation. That means it will be harder, although not impossible, for Shell to get a drilling permit and will require more consultation between federal agencies.

The state has consistently been on the side of oil development and has filed suit in the past to force the federal government to allow offshore drilling to move forward.

In the letter to Salazar and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting director Rowan Gould, Alaska Attorney General John Burns argued the federal government is in violation of the Endangered Species Act for the way it arrived at the designation and the conclusions it made. For instance, he said, the main reason for the polar bears' plight -- decline in sea ice -- would not be alleviated by the critical habitat designation.

"What the Designation does do is impose another layer of costly regulation on Alaska, its citizens, and it's economy," Burns wrote.

Brendan Cummings, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Tuesday his organization will intervene in any lawsuit brought by the state to invalidate the critical habitat designation.

"The critical habitat designation is the one thing the Department of the Interior actually got right with the polar bear," Cummings said in an e-mail. "Alaska's notice letter is mostly boilerplate complaints with little basis in science and law. The state is still in denial about the fact that global warming threatens not just the polar bear but the entire state of Alaska."

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect the polar bears' designation as threatened, not endangered.