Alaska Natives consider suing over polar bear habitat

ANCHORAGE — Some of the Arctic's largest Alaska Native organizations are threatening to sue the federal government over its decision to designate more than 187,000 square miles of land and ocean as critical habitat for polar bears.

Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and 10 other Native organizations, along with the North Slope Borough, contend that the Interior Department's decision two months ago to establish polar bear critical habitat was illegal because it didn't address Alaska Native concerns.

The polar bear issue is intertwined with the debate over climate change and the push to develop new oil and gas projects on the North Slope and in federal waters off Alaska's coast. While a few Native organizations have sued to block oil and gas drilling, some of those involved in the potential lawsuit have been working for years with the oil and gas industry, including Arctic Slope and the North Slope Borough.

The Interior Department said it won't put oil and gas projects off limits in the vast swath of land and water it designated as polar bear critical habitat -- an area that stretches from Kaktovik to south of Norton Sound in western Alaska. But the designation, announced last November, will potentially create more red tape for those projects.

Arctic Slope had asked federal regulators to exclude all Native-owned lands from polar bear critical habitat, but regulators rejected that request, company officials said Monday.

As for the borough, mayor Edward Itta said, "We want and need to be part of the discussions."

North Slope residents are worried about climate change and the future of polar bears, Itta said. But the Interior Department decision "doesn't create more ice and doesn't increase the polar bear population," he said.

Instead, it threatens the economic lifeblood of the Slope -- the oil and gas industry, Itta said. Drilling must be made safer, but polar bears and other animals shouldn't be used as a tool to block projects, he said.

"This is a poor attempt to legislate climate change through regulation," said Rex Rock Sr., chief executive of Arctic Slope, in a statement on Monday.

The Interior Department's decision on polar bears is being attacked from many directions.

Last week, the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity said it plans to sue the Interior Department over its agencies' failure to implement the critical habitat decision to protect polar bears from oil and gas development in offshore waters,.

The state of Alaska also plans to sue. In December, Alaska Attorney General John Burns told the Interior Department that Alaska's polar bear population is healthy and the critical habitat decision will impose unnecessary, costly regulation on Alaska. It could also prevent new development that could create hundreds of millions of dollars in state income, according to Burns. He said the department violated its own rules for designating critical habitat -- by relying on faulty science and ignoring some of the state's input, for example.

The Interior Department says its designation merely requires federal agencies to consult with the federal Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that development projects do not harm the polar bear population.

The critical habitat designation was triggered by the Bush administration's decision in 2008 to list polar bears as a threatened species due to climate change. It classifies barrier islands, coastal areas used for denning and offshore sea ice as critical habitat for polar bears. Roughly 96 percent of the total area is in offshore waters of the continental shelf.

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