The Interior Department wants 10 more weeks to decide whether polar bears should be listed as threatened or endangered, a delay that conservation groups condemned as tied to the transfer of offshore petroleum leases in the animal's habitat.
On Jan. 9 the department missed a deadline for a final decision and three conservation groups sued. In the government response Thursday, Assistant Interior Secretary Lyle Laverty said the department needed until June 30 to complete a legal and policy review.
A spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity immediately said that falls outside requirements of the Endangered Species Act.
"These are not questions for attorneys," said Kassie Siegel, the principal author on the petition seeking polar bear protections. "They're questions for scientists."
The petition seeks the measures because global warming threatens sea-ice habitat.
The request for more time, Siegel said, is probably a tactic to delay a decision until the Minerals Management Service can finish issuing offshore petroleum leases in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's northwest shore, home to one of two polar bear populations in Alaska.
"There's no justification for the delay," she said. "Nothing they've put forward comes close to justifying it. They're just stalling."
The groups will ask for an agency decision no later than a week after a court hearing May 8 before U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilkin in Oakland.
Alaska has the only two polar bear populations in the United States, the Beaufort Sea group off the state's north coast and the Chukchi Sea group, shared with Russia.
Summer sea ice last year shrank to a record low, about 1.65 million square miles in September, nearly 40% less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000. Some climate models have predicted the Arctic will be free of summer sea ice by 2030. A U.S. Geological Survey study predicted polar bears in Alaska could be wiped out by 2050.
A decision to protect polar bears because of global warming could trigger a recovery plan with consequences beyond Alaska. Opponents fear it would subject new power plants and other development projects to review if they generate greenhouse gases..
In the court filing, Laverty tied the delay to "the complexity of the legal and scientific issues," including the need to review about 670,000 public comments and USGS reports.
The service's Alaska office in December transmitted a draft final listing. In early February, Laverty wrote, the agency determined the draft "raised various factual and legal issues," and a new draft was prepared.
Laverty did not specify who revised the draft, Siegel said.
"They don't have any polar bear biologists in Washington, D.C.," she said.