Alaska joins appeal of ruling on polar bear 'threatened' status

Richard Mauer

The Parnell administration on Friday joined a parade of parties appealing the June decision by a federal judge in Washington, D.C., that the government correctly listed polar bears as a threatened species.

On Thursday, 35 plaintiffs and intervenors, some working together, filed three separate notices that they were appealing U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan's decision in favor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's listing of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. Most of the parties support or engage in trophy hunting, though they also include an organization of California cattlemen.

The fourth notice of appeal, to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, belongs to the State of Alaska. It was filed this morning by one of four non-state lawyers who have represented the state in the case -- Boise, Idaho-based Murray Feldman of the western states law firm Holland & Hart.

The state had been one of many plaintiffs to sue against the 2008 listing. The Parnell Administration said the listing was inappropriate because polar bear populations were healthy.

Environmental organizations also sued or intervened in District Court, saying the listing wasn't strong enough -- it should have been "endangered," they said, which would provide more protections than "threatened." None of the environmental groups have appealed yet.

The Fish and Wildlife Service agrees that the polar bear numbers are strong today in most of their locations, but listed them because of threats to their habitat caused by global warming.

Polar bears spend much of their lives hunting seals from sea ice. Biologists say that as the sea ice melts away, bears will have to swim tremendous distances between rest stops. At the same time, their food supply will become harder to find. The stress is likely to cause deaths from drowning and reduce their ability to reproduce, the biologists say.

Over the last three decades, Arctic sea ice has melted at rates unprecedented in recorded history. A recent study by climate scientists with the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that half the melting was due to greenhouse gases produced by human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuel for energy production.

Parnell administration officials say that polar bears survived prehistoric periods of global warming and there's no reason to believe they wouldn't again. The state lawsuit doesn't deny the world is undergoing climate change, but it says the Endangered Species Act shouldn't be used in a "speculative" situation before an animal population actually shows signs of serious decline. State officials say they fear the listing could impede oil and gas development in the Arctic Ocean, though that is also speculative -- no development has been blocked yet by the listing.

The Fish and Wildlife Service argued successfully that the listing was well within the law, since it allows for special management of polar bears and their habitat to keep them from facing extinction.

When he ruled in June, Sullivan said the agency followed proper procedures and met the standards of "rationality" in making the listing.

Reach Richard Mauer at or 257-4345.

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