Conservation groups and Alaska Natives joined forces today to fight oil drilling in the Arctic's Chukchi Sea. Thirty million acres of key polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea are scheduled to open to oil and gas companies on February 6, when the U.S. Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) plans to hold bidding for drilling leases. Audubon has decried the oil lease sales, particularly as the Bush administration has delayed listing the polar bear as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

"It's regrettable that we now must turn to the courts to protect the polar bear from our own Interior Department. Opening up Alaska's Chukchi Sea, also known as the Polar Bear Sea, to oil and gas leases is about as shameless as this administration has been on the environment," said Betsy Loyless, Audubon Senior Vice President and Donal O'Brien Chair for Advocacy and Policy.

The Chukchi Sea is home to one-tenth of the world's polar bears, along with walruses and endangered bowhead whales. Polar bears are currently under consideration for listing as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act. Earlier this month, the Interior Department announced it would delay its decision on whether or not to list the bear for approximately one month. The delay allows just enough time for the Chukchi lease sale to move forward on February 6.

"In a lopsided and telling series of decisions, this administration brazenly skipped a legal deadline to protect the bear, swore before Congress the drilling would do no harm even as their scientists warned them otherwise, and have done nothing but impede solutions to global warming," continued Loyless. "By the government's own admission, an oil spill in the Chukchi is probable and would likely hurt polar bears. Spills in those icy rough waters are nearly impossible to clean up before doing damage to wildlife."

Birds would be profoundly affected in a lease sale as well. At least 15 species of birds on Audubon Alaska's WatchList use marine and coastal habitats in the Chukchi Sea. The WatchList identifies declining and vulnerable species and populations of birds. Besides the threatened Steller's and Spectacled Eiders, WatchList species using the Chukchi Sea include Yellow-billed Loons and Red-throated Loons, both of which were impacted by the recent oil spill off the coast of South Korea.

"The Chukchi Sea is an ecologically rich frontier environment, and it is changing rapidly due to global warming," said Stan Senner, Audubon Alaska executive director. "We barely know this changing seascape, and this is not the time to move forward with a massive lease."

According to internal documents released by the whistleblower group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Interior Department ignored warnings by agency scientists that oil spills in the Chukchi would harm polar bears.

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