(AP) - The Interior Department has decided to protect the polar bear as a threatened species because of the decline in Arctic sea ice from global warming, officials said Wednesday.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne scheduled a news conference to announce the action.
It comes a day before a court-imposed deadline on deciding whether the bear should be put under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.
The department, in deciding to list the bear as threatened, will cite studies by its own scientists that the decline of Arctic sea ice off Alaska and Canada could result in two-thirds of the polar bears disappearing by mid-century, said federal officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision had not been announced.
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Interior Department spokesman Shane Wolfe declined to comment ahead of the formal announcement.
This is the first time that the Endangered Species Act has been used to protect a species threatened by the impacts of global warming.
There has been concern within the business community that such action could have far-reaching impact and could be used to regulate carbon dioxide.
But the decision includes provisions that specifically are aimed at protecting power plants and other energy-related entities, said an official who was familiar with the decision.
This is the first time the Endangered Species Act has been used to protect a species threatened by global warming.
Kempthorne proposed 15 months ago to investigate whether the polar bear should be declared threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
That triggered a year of studies into the threats facing the bear and its survival prospects at a time when scientists predict a continuing warming and loss of Arctic sea ice.
The Arctic sea ice serves as a primary habitat for the bear and is critical to its survival, scientists say.
"The science is absolutely clear that polar bear needs protection under the Endangered Species Act," said Andrew Wetzler, director of the endangered species program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
A decision had been expected by early January, but the Interior Department said it needed more time to work out many of the details, prompting criticism from members of Congress and environmentalists.
Environmentalists filed a lawsuit aimed at forcing a decision and a federal court on April 29 set a May 15 deadline for a decision.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)