Polar bears were listed last year as threatened after federal biologists determined they were especially vulnerable because of their dependence on Arctic sea ice which is shrinking due to the rapidly warming climate.
The Alaska energy industry said the move could slow exploration and production activity in the state. Environmental groups applauded the decision as an important step protecting threatened species.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said they rescinded the Endangered Species Act regulation issued in December by the Bush administration, which eliminated the long-standing "Section 7 consultation" requirement for special scrutiny of any proposed activities that might harm a listed species.
Salazar said, "By rolling back this 11th hour regulation, we are ensuring that threatened and endangered species continue to receive the full protection of the law," Salazar said. Because science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make, federal agencies proposing to take actions that might affect threatened and endangered species will once again have to consult with biologists at the two departments."
The reversal means any oil and gas development in polar bear habitat must be cleared through consultation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In a related endangered species issue, a decision on another Bush administration rule limiting federal polar bear protections is due by May 10.