Lawsuit claims U.S. fails to track marine mammals

SAN FRANCISCO -- Environmentalists sued the federal government Thursday for allegedly failing to adequately track populations of marine mammals threatened by global warming.

The lawsuit seeks to force the Department of the Interior to issue updated assessments of four protected species: polar bears, walruses, sea otters and manatees. The reports include information on a species' population, range and threats to survival.

The government uses the assessments to manage protected species and decide whether to allow activities such as fishing, boating, shipping, military exercises and oil and gas exploration.

But the Interior Department has used old data to make decisions that impact marine mammals threatened by rapid ecological changes brought on by climate change, according to the lawsuit.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network filed the complaint against Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court in San Francisco.

"This lawsuit seeks to bring Interior into the 21st century," said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. "The stock assessments determine how our marine mammals are managed. In order to protect and recover these species, we need to have the most up-to-date information possible."

Interior Department spokeswoman Tina Kreisher said the agency could not comment directly on the lawsuit. But she said the department has proposed listing the polar bear as an endangered species, and Secretary Kempthorne has formed a task force of 90 experts to study the impact of climate change on wildlife and federal land.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the government to update stock assessments yearly for endangered species and every three years for other animals. But the latest reports on manatees and sea otters were completed in 1995, and walrus and polar bear reports were issued in 2002, Sakashita said.

The polar bear could face extinction in Alaska by mid-century because of melting Arctic ice, but the current assessment lists the population in the Beaufort Sea as "stable" with more than 2,000 animals, even though scientists estimate the population at 1,500 and falling, she said.