Alaska Native groups to sue over polar bear plan

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A coalition of Alaska Native groups put the federal government on notice Monday that they intend to sue over a recovery plan for polar bears faced with diminishing sea ice and climate change.

The groups contend that the Department of Interior ignored their concerns when the agency designated coastal areas of the North Slope as critical habitat for polar bears.

The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and the North Slope Borough are leading the coalition in sending a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and providing 60-days notice of intention to sue.

The letter says critical habitat designation will not mitigate or remove climate change, which is the primary threat to polar bears. However, the designation will impair Alaska Natives’ ability to benefit from their own resources, and that will cause Native communities to suffer, it says.

Polar bears were declared threatened in 2008 under the federal Endangered Species Act.

More than 187,000 square miles in and near the Beaufort and Chukchi seas have been designated as polar bear critical habitat. The designation is required as part of a recovery plan.

North Slope Borough Mayor Edward S. Itta said the designation will restrict normal community growth in villages and threatens access to traditional subsistence hunting areas.

“The critical habitat designation does not get at the problem of melting sea ice, so it won’t help the polar bear,” he said. “As a solution, this completely misses the mark.”

The state of Alaska has made similar arguments against the listing and also is suing to overturn it.

The state claims that climate models are unreliable and that polar bear populations have not crashed. It says the critical habitat designation will increase costs or even kill resource development projects that are important to Alaska.

The Interior Department, however, has looked at numerous peer-reviewed scientific U.S. Geological Survey reports. The most ominous says that changes in sea ice could result in the loss of two-thirds of the world’s current polar bear population by 2050, including all of Alaska’s.

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