Polar Bears take back seat to oil companies

January 30, 2008 4:09:22 PM PST
Senators are accusing the Interior Department of putting the interests of oil companies ahead of Alaska's polar bears.

They're reacting to the statement from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chief Dale Hall that a decision on whether the bears will get protection under the Endangered Species Act may not be made before the government opens a major habitat to oil leases.

Lawmakers charge Hall is stalling to make it easier to drill in the Chukchi (CHOOK'-chee) Sea, where a fifth of the Arctic's polar bears depend on sea ice in their hunt for food. A large chunk of the sea is to be opened to leasing February 6th.

Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer demanded "a commitment to take immediate action" to protect the bear and wanted to know why the agency is "dragging its feet." She noted that by law the agency had a January 9th deadline.

Hall said he couldn't promise a decision before February 6th, only that a recommendation will be sent to the Interior Secretary "in the very near future."