Senate panel seeks explanation for delay on polar bear listing

WASHINGTON — A Senate committee will ask Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne to explain why, nearly three months after his deadline, he still hasn't announced whether polar bears will be listed as a threatened species.

Kempthorne "must explain to the American people why his department has failed to follow the law and why they still haven't issued a final decision to protect the polar bear," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Boxer has given Kempthorne two options to testify in front of her committee: April 2 or 8. So far, Kempthorne hasn't given any indication that he'll accept the invitation. The Interior Department had no comment Thursday.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which the Interior Department oversees, proposed early last year to list polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency was scheduled to issue a decision on polar bears at the beginning of January but postponed it because its scientists needed more time to analyze studies from the U.S. Geological Survey. Those studies show that as many as two-thirds of the world population of the bears could disappear by mid-century as their habitat melts, leaving a small population of polar bears in the Canadian Arctic.

In a letter sent to Kempthorne on Thursday, Boxer said she was "disappointed" that he hadn't agreed to appear in front of her committee to explain the delays. In January, the committee heard from the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Dale Hall, who testified that the agency needed more time. But that was two months ago, Boxer said.

"He accepted responsibility for this failure and stated that making the final determination would take around 30 days," Boxer said in her letter to Kempthorne. "We are long past the timeframe that even Director Hall discussed at the hearing."

Conservation groups sued the Interior Department last week, saying the decision had taken too long. The lawsuit and Kempthorne's appearance in front of the committee may help prod the Bush administration toward a decision, said Kassie Siegel, an attorney for one of the conservation groups, the Center for Biological Diversity.

"We're absolutely supportive of another hearing," said Siegel, who wrote the 2005 petition asking the government to classify polar bears as threatened. "We think it's appropriate and necessary and the next step."