updated 12/19/2007 8:12:21 PM ET 2007-12-20T01:12:21

Three conservation groups sued the U.S. government on Wednesday to block development and protect a rare loon that breeds in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve.

The groups claim yellow-billed loons are threatened by industrialization in the 23 million-acre reserve, which covers much of Alaska's western North Slope.

"The yellow-billed loon is one of the rarest and most vulnerable birds in the United States," said Andrea Treece, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "If the loon is to survive in a warming Arctic, we need to protect its critical habitat, not open it up for oil development."

The center, along with the National Resources Defense Council and Pacific Environment, filed the lawsuit Wednesday in San Francisco. It names Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

According to the conservation groups, the agency is more than two years behind the legal deadline for taking action to protect the yellow-billed loons under provisions of the Endangered Species Act.

Status review coming, agency says
A spokesman for the agency said a decision on protections is coming.

"We expect to have money available in the fiscal year '08 budget and then complete the status review and the 12-month finding," Bruce Woods said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service only last May accepted the petition for review. The determination required the agency to solicit public comment, carry out a status review of the loons and, if merited, issue a proposed rule to protect loons. That has not happened, and the lawsuit will seek an order from a federal judge telling the agency to do so.

The yellow-billed loon breeds in tundra wetlands in Alaska, Canada and Russia, and it winters along the western coasts of Canada and the United States.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 16,500 yellow-billed loons in the world, including 3,700 to 4,900 that breed in Alaska. More than 75 percent of the Alaska breeders nest in the petroleum reserve, according to conservation groups.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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