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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Leaders of Canada's Arctic Inuit people denounced U.S. environmentalists on Monday for pushing Washington to declare the polar bear a threatened species, saying the move was unnecessary and would hurt the local economy.
The United States last week delayed a decision on whether global warming threatened polar bears on the grounds that it needed more time to analyze the data. Three U.S. green groups said they would sue for quicker action.
The Inuit fear that if Washington does declare the bear a threatened species, it will deter U.S. hunters, who spend millions of dollars a year for the right to shoot the animals in the Canadian Arctic.
Environmentalists say global warming is shrinking the sea ice that polar bears use as a platform to hunt seals. The fate of the bears has received widespread media coverage.
Mary Simon, president of the Inuit Tapiriit of Canada group, said green organizations were using polar bears as an excuse to attack the administration of U.S. President George Bush over its position on climate change.
"As Inuit we fundamentally disagree with such tactics ... the polar bear is a very important subsistence, economic, cultural, conservation, management, and rights concern for Inuit in Canada," she said in a statement.
"It's a complex and multilevel concern. But it seems the media, environmental groups, and the public are looking at this in overly simplistic black-and-white terms as the demise of the polar bear from climate change and sports hunting."
Scientists estimate that the world's polar bear population is around 25,000. Two-thirds of the animals live in Canada, almost all of them in the Arctic territory of Nunavut.
The U.S. Geological Survey said last year that two-thirds of the world's polar bears could be gone by 2050 if predictions about melting sea ice hold true.
Nunavut officials say that while there are areas of concern, the bears in general are doing well. Dr Peter Ewins, director of species conservation at World Wildlife Fund Canada, is not so optimistic.
"Things are trending very poorly right now for a number of these polar bear populations," he told Reuters, saying data showed five of the 13 Canadian populations were either seeing declines or no increases in numbers.
From July 1, 2006, to June 30, 2007, a total of 498 bears were killed in Nunavut. Sports hunters -- who can pay C$30,000 ($30,600) or more to kill a bear -- shot 120 animals.
Hunters spend an estimated C$3.5 million a year on the hunt in Nunavut, where both living costs and unemployment are high. U.S. hunters would be banned from bringing polar bear pelts home if the animals were granted threatened status.
"This law suit is not very constructive, but meant for publicity," said Duane Smith, president of the Canadian branch of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, who insisted the hunt is highly regulated.
"Our hunters and guides benefit economically, and we are able to continue with our culture, enjoy the benefits of what we use, and ensure that this is done in a responsible and sustainable manner," he said in the statement.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway