Alaska to sue over U.S. polar bear protection

Alaska plans to sue the U.S. government for designating a wide swath of the Arctic as a critical habitat for polar bears struggling with the effects of climate change.

State officials filed notice Tuesday that Alaska will sue the Fish and Wildlife Service in 60 days unless Interior Secretary Ken Salazar withdraws or alters the habitat designation – announced last month – of 187,157 square miles.

On Wednesday, the Obama administration confirmed an earlier Bush-era decision that says polar bears are “threatened” rather than “endangered.” In court papers filed with the U.S. District Court in Washington, it says the animal doesn’t qualify as endangered – and thus eligible for heightened protection – under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

“The polar bear is one of the most protected species in the world,” Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said in a statement. “The additional regulations and consultations and likely litigation that would be triggered by this habitat designation would simply delay jobs, increase the costs of, or even prevent resource development projects that are crucial for the state.”

The habitat designation, aimed at helping polar bears fight extinction as Arctic sea ice melts, does not in itself block economic activity such as offshore oil and gas drilling, but it requires federal officials to consider if such action would adversely affect their habitat.

Nearly 95% of the designated habitat is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s northern coast, reports the Associated Press, adding environmentalists were not surprised by the action of Alaska officials.

“They have opposed every Endangered Species Act listing to date,” Brendan Cummings, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, told the AP. His group filed a lawsuit to get the critical habitat designated. He said Alaska has also opposed added ESA protection for beluga whales in Cook Inlet and ringed seals.

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