The polar bear was not present at today's hearing on Capitol Hill, but that doesn't mean the claws weren't out as Congress questioned why the Interior Department has not yet named the animal as endangered.
Some members of the Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming suggested that the delay might be more than just typical bureaucratic delay or holiday season hibernation. Is the delay caused by a rush to sell the polar bears' habitat to oil companies for drilling first, they asked?
A petition has been filed with the US Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as "threatened" (the first step toward endangered status) and identify its critical habitat in Alaska. But last week the Service said it would miss the deadline on Jan.9, because it needed another month to determine if the habitat is indeed critical.
This is the same habitat that another branch of the Interior department is currently considering to lease for gas and oil drilling. Nearly 30 million acres in the Chuckchi Sea are part of a lease deal that could go through as soon as next month, according to today's testimony.
Dr. Steven Amstrup from the US Geological Survey told the committee that his research shows that "in the next 50 years the polar bear population could decline by two thirds" due to its melting habitat and based on the various forecasts of global warming.
Representatives from the Interior Department today testified that they have studied the potential effects of a possible oil spill in the bears' Alaskan habitat and acknowledge that "due primarily to the increased concentration of bears on parts of the coast, the potential for a large oil spill to impact polar bear populations has increased in recent years."
At today's hearing, Chairman Edward Markey, D-MA, questioned the delay. In defense of the polar bear he said, "In the end, man can adapt, but the bear cannot. We can act to prevent global warming, but the bear cannot. We can develop alternatives to oil, but the bear cannot. When the ice is gone, man cheers about new commercial opportunities for oil and gas drilling; the bear starves and drowns."
Randall Luthi, Director of the Mineral Management Service of the Interior Department said "We think we have done a good job and understand the potential effect of this sale."
Markey expressed his frustration with the Interior Department and announced that he was introducing legislation to compel the Bush Administration to protect the polar bear before it allows drilling for oil in Alaska.
"I have been hoping for common sense from the Department of Interior and Secretary Kempthorne, but I have heard that all-too-common abandonment of common sense here today. We are going to have to redouble our efforts on this committee and in this Congress to head off extinction of the polar bear. If this decision is delayed, in making a determination as to drilling in the Chukchi Sea, we will still be years from the first barrel of oil ever coming from the ocean. But if we get this sequence wrong, in terms of the protection of the polar bear, we will be accelerating the day that the polar bear will be extinct, and I do not think that is something that the American people want to see."