The Interior Department's inspector general has begun a preliminary investigation into why the department has delayed for nearly two months a decision on listing the polar bear as threatened because of the loss of Arctic sea ice.
A recommendation to Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was to have been made by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on whether to declare the bear threatened in early January. But when the deadline came, the agency said it needed another month, a timetable that also was not met.
A spokesman for the department's inspector general's office said a case had been opened in response to a letter from several environmental groups. He said the preliminary inquiry would determine whether a full-fledged investigation is warranted.
Last September a series of reports from the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that as much as two-thirds of the polar bear population could disappear by mid-century because of the loss of sea ice attributed to climate change.
Environmentalists have argued that politics is involved. They cite the decision to proceed with an auction for oil and gas leases in early February in the Alaska's Chukchi Sea. The sea ice in those waters provides a key habitat for polar bears.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who held a hearing in January on the polar bear listing, said "this internal investigation is needed and long overdue.
"Given this administration's closeness with the oil industry, its history of politicizing scientific decisions ... I am wary of the integrity of this process," said Markey in a statement.