The federal plan for designating more than 187,000 square miles 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 U.S. 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 coordinator 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.
"We simply do not believe that the existing science justifies this expansive proposal," he said.
Vincent-Lang and a petroleum industry official also took issue with the federal 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 development project delays, additional consultations and litigation -- an enormous burden for the oil 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.
Polar bears were listed as threatened in 2008 by then-Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, because of an alarming loss of summer sea ice in recent decades and climate models that indicate the trend will continue.
Nearly 95 percent 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 was minimal but the costs for people were 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 Center 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 threat to polar bears.
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 U.S.