The Interior Department moved closer to establishing habitat protections for the polar bear yesterday by sending its proposed rule to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review.
The habitat protections will add another layer in what has become a complicated process for protecting the bear, fraught with concerns and legal complaints from environmentalists and industry groups.
The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a threatened species last year because of its melting ice habitat. The decision -- itself the result of a lawsuit -- brought on a bevy of other legal complaints from environmentalists, hunting groups, industry groups and the state of Alaska.
The habitat protections could create more controversy over how federal officials should deal with climate change that is changing the bear's current habitat and what level of protections the bears need from oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.
Melting sea ice is the greatest threat to the polar bears. But both the Bush and Obama administrations balked at setting national climate policy under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act or using the act itself to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
An exception included in the polar bear's listing rule allows oil and gas companies to operate in the bear's habitat, prompting environmentalists to sue the administration.
"The [habitat designation] would have to cover not only the habitat where the polar bear already exists, but the habitat that the polar bear lost," said Bill Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that sued over the bear. "And it is going to have to do something to take into account global warming and Arctic melting."
John Kostyack, an attorney for the National Wildlife Federation, suggested that the rule should include a robust analysis of the areas where the bear could be most threatened because of oil and gas development. Such development is not considered a key threat to the bear, but environmentalists say the federal government needs to reduce stressors on the species.
"It has to grapple with oil and gas development," Kostyack said. "The first rule from climate scientists is that the first thing you do is take care of other stressors and try to find a way to help the species maintain its resilience."
In the final months of the Bush administration, the Interior Department launched a controversial plan to ramp up offshore drilling in Alaska, as well as the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The Obama administration is moving forward with that plan. The department closed a public comment period last month but has not set a timetable for a final decision.
The Interior Department agreed to designate critical habitat for the polar bear as part of a partial settlement reached last year with environmental groups, which had sued for more stringent protections for the animal.
The Endangered Species Act states that wildlife officials should determine critical habitat at the time of listing, but in practice, the agency rarely does so. The Interior Department did not include those protections in the polar bear listing.
Critical habitat designations prohibit federal agencies from taking actions that harm protected species within those areas.
The settlement, filed in federal court in California last year, sets a deadline of June 30, 2010, for Interior to designate critical habitat for the bear.