A U.S. plan for designating more than 484,000 square kilometres as polar bear critical habitat is too large and will lead to huge, unnecessary costs for Alaska's petroleum industry, opponents of the proposal told the federal Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday night.

Critical habitat by definition is the area that contains features essential to the conservation of the species, said Doug Vincent-Lang, endangered species co-ordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But the federal plan covers nearly the entire range of polar bears in U.S. territory, which is too large, he said.

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Polar bears were listed as a threatened species in 2008 because of an alarming loss of summer sea ice.

"We simply do not believe that the existing science justifies this expansive proposal," he said.

Vincent-Lang and an oil industry official also took issue with the U.S. government's estimate that costs related to the critical habitat plan would be minimal because of polar bear protections already in place.

The designation would lead to project delays, additional consultations and litigation — an enormous burden for the industry, said Marilyn Crockett, director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. "While these costs may be difficult to quantify, they are real and must be considered," she said.

Sea ice shrinks

The federal Department of the Interior listed polar bears as threatened in 2008, because of an alarming loss of summer sea ice in recent decades, which climate models indicate will continue. Nearly 95 per cent of the proposed designated area is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Polar bears spend most of their lives on frozen ocean and use it to hunt seals, breed and travel.

The Endangered Species Act requires protections to be balanced against their costs, Vincent-Lang said. The additional protection for bears would be minimal but the costs for people would be huge, he said. "Preliminary figures indicate hundreds of millions of dollars in lost economic activity resulting from lost or delayed tax revenue, royalties revenue, employment and income, and community development infrastructure," he said.

Rebecca Noblin, an attorney for the Centre for Biological Diversity, the group that petitioned to list polar bears, praised the designation of critical habitat but said it doesn't address the primary peril. Global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions, which has melted sea ice, is the real threat, she said. "They're missing the boat here," Noblin said. "They're not addressing the real threat to the polar bear."

Tuesday's hearing in Anchorage was the first of two on the proposal. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is scheduled to collect testimony Thursday in Barrow, the northernmost city in the United States.