updated 4/20/2008 4:54:26 PM ET 2008-04-20T20:54:26

The Department of the Interior wants 10 more weeks to decide whether polar bears should be listed as threatened or endangered, a delay conservation groups condemned as tied to the transfer of offshore petroleum leases in one of the animals' two U.S. habitats.

The Interior Department on Jan. 9 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 of the proposed listing.

A spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity said the government's request falls outside requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

"These are not questions for attorneys," said Kassie Siegel, the principal author on the petition seeking protections for polar bears. "They're questions for scientists."

The petition seeks additional protections for polar bears because of the threat to their sea ice habitat from global warming.

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.

Siegal said the request for more time is likely a tactic by political appointees 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, to further protect the leases from legal challenges.

The conservation groups said they would 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, Calif.

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 percent less ice than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000. A decision to list polar bears because of global warming could trigger a recovery plan that has consequences beyond Alaska. Opponents fear it would subject new power plants and other development projects to review if they generate greenhouse gases that add to warming in the Arctic.

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