updated 1/30/2008 12:37:31 PM ET 2008-01-30T17:37:31

A decision on whether to protect Alaska's polar bears under the Endangered Species Act might not come before the government opens a major bear habitat to oil leases next week, though staff recommendations are completed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chief said Wednesday.

Dale Hall, the agency's director, faced sharp criticism at a Senate hearing from lawmakers who accused the Interior Department of stalling to make it easier for oil companies to obtain drilling leases in the Chukchi Sea, where a fifth of the Arctic's polar bears use sea ice to hunt for food.

Another Interior Department agency, the Minerals Management Service, plans to open a large area of the Chukchi Sea to oil and gas leases on Feb. 6.

The Chukchi Sea is home to one of two U.S. polar bear populations, and scientists say global warming is causing serious melting of Arctic sea ice, the bear's primary habitat.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, demanded "a commitment to take immediate action" to protect the bear before the leasing begins and asked Hall why his agency "is dragging its feet" while the department "is moving quickly ... to allow new oil activities in one of the biological hearts of the polar bear's habitat."

"There should be no further delay," said Boxer, noting that by law the agency was to have made a decision on whether to declare the bear threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act by Jan. 9.

Hall said he could not promise a decision before Jan. 6, only that a recommendation on the bear will be sent to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne "in the very near future."

Hall said the delay is not base on unresolved scientific issues, but — given the issue's high profile — a desire to assure that Congress and the public will understand the decision when it is made public.

Hall rejected suggestions of political involvement in the decision, which is the first time that a species has been considered for protection under the act because of the impact of global warming. Last September, a series of reports by the Interior Department's scientific arm concluded that as much as two-thirds of the polar bear population could disappear by mid-century because of the loss of sea ice attributed to climate change.

The recommendation will be based on "the science in front of us. That will be the basis for our decision," said Hall.

Pressed by Boxer, he acknowledged that draft staff recommendation on the bear listing has been completed and sent to Washington in mid-December by agency scientists in Alaska — where the major scientific analysis and research has been focused.

The decision could have broad implications since protecting the bear's habitat could mean finding ways to reduce ice melting.

The threats to the polar bear "are a harbinger of what the future may look like" under climate change, said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who has argued for aggressive action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., a leading co-sponsor of legislation before the Senate to require reductions in greenhouse gases, said the bear "may be to global warming what the canary in a coal mine has been to mining."

But Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., an outspoken skeptics about climate change, called the polar bear "the pawn in a much larger game of chess." He maintained that environmentalists are using the bear to push for restrictions on greenhouse gases that could lead to higher energy prices. Inhofe argued that concern about the loss of sea ice was based on questionable computer modeling.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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