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Polar bear harassment by oil companies challenged

July 09, 2008
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According to the Associated Press, two conservation groups filed a lawsuit recently 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.

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.

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 Royal Dutch Shell PLC subsidiary 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.
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