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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Bush administration must decide by May 15 whether polar bears in the United States should be listed as threatened by climate change under the Endangered Species Act, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday, barring further delay.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken in Oakland, California, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs -- the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace -- finding the U.S. government broke the law by missing the deadline for a polar bear decision by four months.
The Interior Department, which has responsibility for endangered species, was supposed to issue a decision in January but postponed that for a month. Most recently, it asked for a delay until June 30 so its lawyers could finish reviewing and revising the decision.
Wilken denied this request.
"Defendants offer no specific facts that would justify the existing delay, much less further delay," she said.
"To allow defendants more time would violate the mandated listing deadlines under the ESA (Endangered Species Act) and congressional intent that time is of the essence in listing threatened species."
The government must decide whether to classify polar bears living in Alaska as threatened, meaning they might face a risk of extinction in the future. If it does, then it must develop a plan to stave off the threat, a complicated process that could take years. The action would not affect polar bears living in other Arctic countries, such as Russia or Canada.
Environmental groups have pressed the U.S. government to decide on the polar bears' fate, arguing that the disappearance of their icy habitat due to global warming threatens their existence.
"The federal court has thrown this incredible animal a lifeline," said Andrew Wetzler of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The Endangered Species Act requires the decision to be based solely on science, and the science is absolutely unambiguous that the polar bear deserves protection."
Shane Wolf, a spokesman for the Interior Department, said by e-mail: "We have received the court's decision and are reviewing it. We will evaluate the legal options and will decide the appropriate course of action."
Polar bears live only in the Arctic and depend on sea ice as a platform for hunting seals. A report by the U.S. Geological Survey said two-thirds of the world's polar bears -- some 16,000 -- could be gone by 2050 if predictions about melting sea ice hold true.
This is the first time global warming has been a factor in proposing a threatened status for any U.S. species.
Until the U.S. government issues its decision on polar bears' status under the Endangered Species Act, there should be no more oil and gas development in the Arctic bear's habitat, according to the environmental law group Earthjustice.
Earthjustice, which was not involved in the current polar bear lawsuit, is proceeding with a separate suit challenging the Bush administration's sale of oil and gas development rights in the Chukchi Sea off the Alaskan coast, a prime polar bear area.
During the first delay in issuing the polar bear decision, the Interior Department sold oil and gas rights on February 6 across some 29.7 million acres in the Chukchi Sea for a record $2.66 billion -- about four times what the government expected to get.
"Only after deciding what level of protection polar bears warrant can informed decisions be made about how, where and when oil and gas development might go forward in polar bear habitat," the group's Erik Grafe said in a statement.
Interior Department officials have acknowledged that the science on the polar bear's future is not in doubt but have said that any plan to remove the threat to the animals' existence would be complicated, since climate change is a global phenomenon rather than a particular limited area with a specific problem.
In Canada, where two-thirds of the world's polar bears live, an advisory panel -- the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife -- said last Friday that the polar bear is of "special concern" but is not endangered or threatened with extinction.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)
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