U.S. delays decision on status of polar bears

Officials with a U.S. government agency say they need another month before it can decide whether polar bears should be a threatened species.

Officials with a U.S. government agency say they need another month before deciding whether polar bears should be a threatened species — a decision being closely watched in Canada's North.

On Monday, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the month-long delay was necessary to assess public comments on new bear research that was delivered in September.

"It's a very important decision, it's a very complex decision, and I think we feel it's more important to be right than on time," Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage, Alaska, told CBC News on Monday.

The U.S. government received close to 700,000 comments, with most in favour of listing polar bears as a threatened species. Woods said a decision will be announced within the next three to four weeks.

The service has been reviewing the possibility of listing polar bears as a threatened species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act since December 2006, when U.S. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed it amid concerns that climate change is melting Arctic sea ice.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's recommendation to Kempthorne was expected by Wednesday.

Listing polar bears as threatened would require U.S. federal agencies to make sure anything they authorize would not jeopardize the bears or the sea ice where they live. That could include oil and gas exploration, commercial shipping or even releases of pollution that might affect climate.

The agency's recommendation is being closely watched in northern Canada, especially in Nunavut, where polar bears are hunted for sport, a lucrative industry that can net Inuit guides thousands of dollars per hunt.

The Nunavut government opposes listing the species as threatened, as politicians fear it could potentially bar American sport hunters from bringing the hides of the animals back home with them, severely limiting the appeal of the hunt.

U.S. officials said listing the bears as threatened could lead to a ban on the import of trophy bear hunts, effective as early as this winter.

"When a species is protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and is given endangered species protection, then it is technically listed as a depleted species," said Valerie Fellows, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. "Therefore, any permits to allow sport trophy hunting items to come back into the U.S. could not be allowed anymore."

Making the bears a threatened species could also lead to controls on aboriginal polar bear hunts in Alaska, Woods said. Alaska currently has a self-regulated indigenous hunt, and it is not seen to be threatening polar bear populations so far.

"If it were seen that indigenous hunting was threatening polar bears, then under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could establish harvest limits for Alaskan natives," Woods said.

Aboriginal communities in Alaska have hunted an average of 50 polar bears a year over the past decade, Woods said. However, sport hunting polar bears is not allowed in that state.