For Immediate Release, January 31, 2008

Contact: Kassie Siegel, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 366-2232 x 302 (office) or (951) 961-7972 (cell)

Lawsuit Challenges Bush Administration’s Sell-off of
30 Million Acres of Critical Polar Bear Habitat for Fossil Fuel Development

JUNEAU, Alaska— Today conservationists and Alaska Natives filed suit in federal court challenging the Bush administration’s plan to sell 30 million acres of prime polar bear habitat for oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska.

The administration has fast-tracked the oil lease sale while at the same time illegally delaying a final Endangered Species Act listing decision for the polar bear, which is threatened both by global warming and additional threats such as oil spills and industrial activity in the Arctic. The lease sale was approved by one Interior Department agency, the Minerals Management Service, while the polar bear listing decision was delayed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, also within the Department of the Interior.

“The only thing keeping pace with the drastic melting of the Arctic sea ice is the breakneck speed with which the Department of the Interior is rushing to sell off polar bear habitat for fossil fuel development,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the organizations filing suit. “For polar bears to survive global warming, we need to protect the remote and fragile places where they live, not auction them off to oil companies.”

The Chukchi Sea lease sale, scheduled for February 6, 2008, has outraged conservationists, Alaska Natives, and lawmakers alike. Bills have been introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate that would require the secretary of the interior to delay the lease sale at least until the polar bear listing decision is finalized and the species’ critical habitat has been designated.

In its proposal to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife stated that it did not have enough information to designate the polar bear’s critical habitat (those areas essential to the survival and recovery of the species). Despite the legal requirement to designate critical habitat concurrently with a final listing, the agency has taken no further steps to do so.

“If the interior secretary claims to not know what areas are essential to the conservation of the polar bear, then he certainly cannot sell off huge tracks of polar bear habitat to oil companies and claim it will have no impact on the species,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director for the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the petition to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. “This administration operates under a double standard: it claims there is always enough information to authorize new fossil-fuel developments, but never enough information to protect a species or take concrete steps to address global warming,” Siegel added. “The administration knows that the days of business-as-usual fossil-fuel development are numbered, and it is rushing to help oil companies increase their profits at the polar bear’s expense.”

The oil and gas development is slated to occur in an area that provides crucial habitat not only for polar bears, but also endangered bowhead whales, gray whales, Pacific walrus, ribbon seals, threatened spectacled eiders, and other marine birds and fish. The area is also a vital subsistence grounds for Alaska Natives who reside on the Chukchi coast.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in Alaska, includes claims that the administration violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act in approving the lease sale.

Plaintiffs on the suit are the Native Village of Point Hope, the City of Point Hope, the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope, REDOIL (Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands), the Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, National Audubon Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Oceana, Pacific Environment, Sierra Club, and The Wilderness Society. The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from the nonprofit law firm Earthjustice in Juneau, Alaska.

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