Wilken rejected Interior's request to postpone its decision on polar bears until June 30, saying that to do so violates "congressional intent that time is of the essence in listing threatened species," and ruled further that the agency had failed to prove that waiting "will not pose a threat to the polar bear."
The decision took as long as it did, Kempthorne said, because of the large amount of data that he and his colleagues had to study and debate before making a ruling. "You simply have to look at the best available science on this particular species," Kempthorne said, adding that he worked with the Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey to make his decision.
Others accused Interior of delaying its listing of the polar bear as an endangered species until after business deals had been done in Alaska. "The Minerals Management Service was set to finalize the sales of leases for exploratory oil and gas drilling off the coast of Alaska," says Andrew Wetzler, director of the NRDC's Endangered Species Project. This would have subjected those lease sales, such as the sale of oil and gas leases covering nearly 46,000 square miles (120, 000 square kilometers) in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast of Alaska, to additional regulatory oversight, he added.
Kempthorne flatly denied at the press conference that he waited until after the drilling jobs were handed out before making his decision. "No, we did not hold off on the polar bear decision until the leases had been awarded, he said.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, some polar bears are already starving as a result of changing conditions in the Arctic. And the U.S. Geological Survey recently reported that polar bear populations could drop precipitously in coming decades as the sea ice they rely on to hunt recedes as the globe warms. This past September the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., which collects polar and ice information for the government, announced that there was less sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean than at any time since satellite measurements began in 1979.
Critics of designating the animals as endangered charge that such a move is merely a smoke screen for efforts to stem global warming, such as curbs on greenhouse gas emissions. "What has become clear through this heavily litigated process is that listing the polar bear as a threatened species is not about protecting the polar bear but rather advancing a particular political agenda," Sen. James Inhofe (R–Okla.) said in a statement. Inhofe has previously called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D–Mass.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, accused the Bush administration of not going far enough to protect the polar bear, noting that the Interior Department included exemptions to the decision that do not address the reason the sea ice is melting and allowing oil drilling to continue in a major polar bear habitat. The administration "simultaneously announced a rule aimed at allowing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic to continue unchecked even in the face of the polar bear's threatened extinction," he said in a statement issued Wednesday. "Essentially, the administration is giving a gift to Big Oil, and short shrift to the polar bear."