- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2009

ANCHORAGE, Alaska | Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell says he has the best interest of polar bears at heart, but he doesn’t intend to let the federal government’s expanded protection of bears get in the way of the state’s continued prosperity.

Like his predecessor, Sarah Palin, the governor is suing the federal government to overturn the listing of the iconic symbol of the Arctic as a threatened species, a move made last year that he thinks could threaten Alaska’s lifeblood: petroleum development.

“Currently some are attempting to improperly use the Endangered Species Act to shut down resource development,” Mr. Parnell says. “I’m not going to let this happen on my watch.”

As Alaska North Slope wells dry up, the state is turning to potential offshore discoveries to refill the trans-Alaska pipeline and ensure the long-term prospects of a $26 billion proposed natural-gas pipeline. Protections for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act could thwart that, Mr. Parnell says, adding that they’re not needed.

Polar bears are regulated by the federal government like whales and seals. They spend most of their lives in and around frozen ocean water, where their main prey, ringed seals, give birth to pups in lairs. Warming of Arctic waters has significantly diminished the sea ice.

George W. Bush’s interior secretary, Dirk Kempthorne, listed polar bears as threatened in May 2008, eight months after summer sea ice levels melted to their lowest recorded level ever: 1.65 million square miles, or nearly 40 percent below average since satellite monitoring began in 1979.

Most climate modelers predict a continued downward spiral, possibly with an Arctic Ocean that is ice-free during summer months by 2030 or sooner.

The federal agency over two years, however, compiled an administrative record consisting of more than 175,000 pages, including nine peer-reviewed scientific U.S. Geological Survey reports.

The most sobering conclusion: Projected changes in future sea ice will result in the loss of two-thirds of the world’s current polar bear population by 2050, including all of America’s. Researchers included the caveat that their assessment may have been conservative because Arctic sea ice decline likely was underestimated by the models used.

After the listing, Mrs. Palin sued, saying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision was not based on the best scientific and commercial data available as the law requires.

A month after he announced his full support for outer continental shelf petroleum development, Mr. Parnell said in October that the Endangered Species Act was being used as a “land-use planning tool” instead of a species protection vehicle, and the state filed new briefs in the polar bear lawsuit.

Alaska’s lawyers will argue that the research was flawed, that federal officials looked too far into the future and that modeling is uncertain. Especially troublesome, Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan says, is that for the first time, the federal government listed a species with high population numbers - 20,000 to 25,000 worldwide, up from 8,000 to 10,000 in the 1960s.

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