The US government agency responsible for compiling the country’s list of endangered species yesterday faced a new legal challenge over its failure to protect the polar bear.

Environmental groups are suing the Bush administration in a federal court in California, claiming the Fish and Wildlife Service is now in breach of its own mandate.

The FWS was due to have decided by January 9 whether to classify the polar bear as threatened due to climate change. This date itself was a full year after consultations began on the issue. But the service has said it is still reviewing technical data along with more than 670,000 comments on the issue.

Environmental campaigners widely believe the decision is being held up by the Bush administration so it can complete sale of valuable oil and gas leases in coastal waters in Alaska — areas considered to be prime bear habitats.

“The Bush administration seems intent on slamming shut the narrow window of opportunity we have to save polar bears,” said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which, along with Greenpeace and the National Resource Defence Council, is involved in the legal challenge.

“This administration has listed fewer species than any other — ever — under the Endangered Species Act,” said Siegel. “Time and again we have seen political interference in listing proposals that are supposed to be based on science.”