WASHINGTON - The Interior Department's inspector general has begun a preliminary investigation into why the department has delayed for nearly two months a decision on listing the polar bear as threatened because of the loss of Arctic sea ice.
A recommendation to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was to have been made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether to declare the bear threatened in early January. But when the deadline came, the agency said it needed another month, a timetable that also was not met.
A spokesman for the department's inspector general's office said a case had been opened in response to a letter from several environmental groups. He said the preliminary inquiry would determine whether a full-fledged investigation is warranted.
"The letter had specific allegations ... (so) we started an initial inquiry," said Kris J. Kolesnik, associate inspector general for external affairs. "If the initial inquiry produces something that warrants us to take further action, that's when we open an investigation."
Scientists have said the bear is under a growing threat because of the significant loss of Arctic sea ice due to global warming.
The Interior Department in early 2007 proposed listing the bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, triggering a year of scientific review. By law a recommendation was to have been made by the Fish and Wildlife Service by last Jan. 9, a year after the initial action.
The letter to Inspector General Earl Devaney, signed by six environmental groups, alleges that Fish and Wildlife Director Dale Hall violated the agency's scientific code of conduct and the Endangered Species Act in delaying the decision after all of the scientific data had already been developed and sent to Washington before Christmas.
The code is aimed at preventing inappropriate political influence as the agency administers the Endangered Species Act. The code came into being because of another IG report that detailed widespread political interference on species protection decisions that led to the resignation of a senior Interior Department official last May.
Hall has told members of Congress that the delay on the polar bear decision was needed to make sure the decision was in a form easily understood. He has strongly denied any political interference in the decision. He said the agency's recommendation, when given to Kempthorne, would be based "on the science in front of us."
The decision on whether to list the polar bear for protection under the Endangered Species Act is one of the most complex — and possibly far reaching — actions facing the department. For the first time an endangered species decision would link an animal's protection to the impacts of global warming.
Last September a series of reports from the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that as much as two-thirds of the polar bear population could disappear by mid-century because of the loss of sea ice attributed to climate change.
Hall has said analyzing those studies and subsequent public comments has contributed to the delay in making a decision.
Environmentalists have argued that politics is involved. They cite the decision to proceed with an auction for oil and gas leases in early February in the Alaska's Chuckchi Sea. The sea ice in those waters provides a key habitat for polar bears.
"They delayed (the bear decision) to get them beyond the Chukchi Sea leasing. And here we are on March 7, another 30 days and nothing has happened," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, and a former head of the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Clinton administration.
"We certainly have something much more than science going on," said Clark, who was among those who signed the letter to the IG office.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who held a hearing in January on the polar bear listing, said "this internal investigation is needed and long overdue.
"Given this administration's closeness with the oil industry, its history of politicizing scientific decisions ... I am wary of the integrity of this process," said Markey in a statement.