Two conservation groups filed a lawsuit on Tuesday challenging the Bush administration's decision to let oil companies unintentionally harass or harm polar bears and walruses off the northwestern Alaska coast.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage claims that federal officials violated laws designed to protect the animals and their sensitive habitat in the Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea.
"These regulations set the parameters for how oil exploration will be done in the next five years," said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which filed the suit along with Pacific Environment. "The Chukchi Sea is critical habitat for those animals. For them to survive in the face of global warming, we simply cannot allow oil development there."
Last month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to grant legal protection to seven oil companies in the Chukchi over the next five years should they accidentally harm "small numbers" of polar bears or Pacific walruses while drilling or during other exploratory activities. The agency is named as a defendant in the suit, along with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
Fish and Wildlife Service officials said oil and gas exploration will have a negligible effect on the bear and walrus populations. Global warming is most likely to cause the animals' numbers to dwindle, the agency said.
Under the harassment permits, oil companies are required to report all sightings of polar bears and walruses, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Bruce Woods said. The agency treats such reports as valuable data because research in the remote region is often prohibitively expensive.
"Our biologists feel this regulation program is a valuable conservation tool," Woods said. "The companies have to report every sighting and what measures they took to avoid disturbing the animals and what the response was. They give us information on the location and actions of the animals that we might not otherwise have."
About 2,000 of the 25,000 polar bears in the Arctic live in and around the Chukchi Sea, where the government in February auctioned off oil leases to Shell Oil Co., ConocoPhillips Co., and five other companies for $2.6 billion. Over objections from environmentalists and some members of Congress, the sale occurred before the bear was classified as threatened in May.
The groups say the Chukchi is also home to nearly the entire female population of Pacific walrus.
The agency has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit.