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Alaska officials say the state will sue federal goverment over polar bear critical habitat designation

December 21, 2010 |  8:23 pm

Polar Bear

ANCHORAGE — Alaska officials filed notice Tuesday that the state would sue the federal government over a decision to designate a swath of the Arctic as critical habitat for polar bears faced with the effects of climate change.

Republican Gov. Sean Parnell contends that the critical habitat designation, which covers 187,000 square miles and was announced by the Obama administration last month, will delay jobs and increase costs -- or even kill -- resource development projects that are important to Alaska.

"Once again, we are faced with federal overreach that threatens our collective prosperity," he said. "We don't intend to let this stand."

The added protection in the Arctic for polar bears does not in itself block economic activity or other development, but requires federal officials to consider whether a proposed action would adversely affect the polar bear's habitat and interfere with population recovery.

The Interior Department said the designation would help polar bears stave off extinction as they face the melting of Arctic sea ice. The animals are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Parnell argues that the critical habitat designation in the oil-rich Arctic could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic activity and tax revenue for the state.

Alaska officials and the state's oil and gas industry representatives maintain that polar bears do not need the added protection of the Endangered Species Act listing, which they say will hurt offshore drilling efforts and possibly result in hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic activity and tax revenue.

There are already state laws, international agreements and the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect polar bears, Parnell said Tuesday.

"The polar bear is one of the most protected species in the world," the governor said.

The state put the federal agency on 60 days' notice that it intends to sue unless the critical habitat designation is withdrawn or corrected.

The Fish and Wildlife Service does not comment on pending litigation.

The ESA listing for polar bears, and the designation of critical habitat, will only result in increased regulation and consultation, and likely more litigation, Parnell said.

The state also said that areas designated as critical habitat for polar bears includes expanses where there is little or no evidence they are crucial to polar bear conservation.

Nearly 95% of the designated habitat is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska's northern coast.

The threat of a lawsuit over polar bear protection comes as no surprise to environmentalists, said Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed a lawsuit to get the animals listed and critical habitat designated. The state also has opposed added ESA protection for beluga whales in Cook Inlet and ringed seals.

"They have opposed every Endangered Species Act listing to date," Cummings said.


-- Mary Pemberton, Associated Press

Photo: Russell Cheyne / Reuters

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