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Appeals court ruling determines polar bears will retain 'threatened' listing

Ben Anderson
Polar bear wave, Kaktovik. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears argue over a piece of whale meat in Kaktovik. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Young polar bears are chased away from whale meat in Kaktovik. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A polar bear, nose red with blood after feeding on a whale carcass, walks the beach in Kaktovik. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears congregate at the carcass of a bowhead whale on the beach in Kaktovik. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A polar bear explores the eroding bluff in Kaktovik. September 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A polar bear walks along the beach in Kaktovik at sunset. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears playing in the water during a rainstorm in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A polar bear mom and her cubs exploring the beach in Kaktovik. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears napping during a storm in Kaktovik. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A polar bear mom and her cubs exploring the tundra in Kaktovik. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A polar bear stretches on the tundra in Kaktovik. September 7, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

A federal court of appeals ruled Friday that polar bears will remain listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, despite a legal objection brought by the State of Alaska. Though the bears are not currently endangered, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined in May 2008 that polar bears should be listed as endangered on the basis of receding sea ice, an important part of the bears' habitat.

The ruling is significant because it marks the first time that an animal will earn protection under the Endangered Species Act based solely on the potential harm caused by climate change. Polar bears can occasionally swim long distances during the summer months in an attempt to reach land from their winter home on the ice. In 2012, the levels of sea ice in the Arctic reached new all-time lows, just five years after the previous record low occurred. 

Poster children for climate change

As a result, the bruins have become the poster children for the potential impact of climate change on animal habitats. The bears have become the subject of conservation efforts worldwide, as well as a darling of popular media, including a 2007 documentary film narrated by Queen Latifah. 

"Our principal responsibility here is to determine, in light of the record considered by the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), whether the Listing Rule is a product of reasoned decision making," Judge Harry Edwards wrote in the D.C. Court of Appeals ruling. "It is significant that Appellants have neither pointed to mistakes in the agency’s reasoning nor adduced any data or studies that the agency overlooked."

The court said that despite a relatively healthy polar bear population worldwide, the supporting evidence used by the Fish and Wildlife in determining the bears should be listed as threatened was sound, including the climate science indicating the loss of the bears' sea ice habitat.

The state of Alaska argued that the Fish and Wildlife failed to provide sufficient justification for its listing of the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, despite a 45-page response from the agency addressing the state's concerns in the wake of the initial listing.

"Alaska does not argue that FWS failed to give a timely response to the State’s comments. Rather, Alaska simply disagrees with the substantive content of FWS’s response," the court said, adding that the the section of the Endangered Species Act requiring Fish and Wildlife to respond to the state's concerns "does not mean to ensure that the State will be satisfied with FWS’s response."

Disappointment in Alaska

The state expressed disappointment at the ruling, and lawmakers weighed in, citing its potential effects on Arctic development. With the ruling, other animals that rely on sea ice as part of their habitat may see future listings on the same basis.

"We’re disappointed in the court’s ruling in support of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision based on speculation about environmental conditions 50 years into the future,” said state Sen. Cathy Giessel in a written statement.

One of the concerns of industry proponents is that the listing could make it more difficult to perform operations in the Arctic. Royal Dutch Shell embarked on its quest to tap into offshore Arctic oil in 2012, though the company announced just this week that it would suspend those operations for 2013 after a series of mishaps with its primary drilling vessels.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com