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Wildlife

State joins calls for Supreme Court to review bearded seal listing

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: July 31, 2017
  • Published July 31, 2017

The state of Alaska has joined several Arctic organizations, governments, corporations and oil and gas industry representatives in calling for the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on the classification of the bearded seal as a threatened species.

"A listing of a bountiful and healthy species solely upon uncertain speculation 100 years into the future is not scientific and would greatly impact our entire state," said Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth in a release. "I hope the U.S. Supreme Court will take up this case and require that these decisions are supported by reasonable scientific evidence, not speculation."

An undated file photo from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a bearded seal. The seals were listed as endangered in 2012, a listing that has been the subject of court battles ever since. (NOAA)

The petitioners include the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., North Slope Borough, Northwest Arctic Borough, NANA Regional Corp. and the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.

They filed a writ of certiorari, or a reconsideration of actions, on July 21. A separate writ will be filed by the American Petroleum Institute and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

The request specifically addresses the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last October which upheld the 2012 listing of Alaska's Arctic bearded seal population as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

"If the ESA listing for bearded seals were to stand, it would require us to recover a population that has not yet declined," said Bruce Dale, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in the statement. "That is simply not possible and a poor use of resources."

According to court documents, the National Marine Fisheries Service instated the listing in 2012. The following year, it was challenged by the state, the oil and gas industry and other groups.

The listing was vacated, or removed, in 2014 by the Alaska District Court. NMFS appealed the decision and the 9th Circuit reinstated the terms of the 2012 listing.

"We are deeply concerned by this decision, just as we were five years ago," said North Slope Borough Mayor Harry K. Brower Jr. in a release. "We want to work together with industry and government agencies to protect the subsistence rights of our people, protect the environment, and develop all the resources of the North Slope in a responsible manner."

On the other side of the case alongside NMFS is its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, along with a handful of its employees, the U.S. commerce secretary with the Center for Biological Diversity as an intervenor.

In its original decision, NMFS outlined the potential danger to the bearded seal from climate change over the next century. It noted that summer sea ice is expected to decline over the coming decades, with parts of the Arctic seeing years free of summer sea ice altogether by 2100.

Opponents of the decision question NMFS' argument, saying there hasn't been enough research done to state that with certainty or to know what the consequences could be.

"By accepting uncertain 100-year climate projections as the basis for a threatened listing, the appellate court has undermined the statutory requirement that threats to a species be foreseeable," said ASRC President and CEO Rex Rock Sr. in the release.

Bearded seal, or ugruk, are an important subsistence resource for the region. Should the species decline due to climate change, the effect could be devastating to local hunters and their communities.

However, as with similar federal decisions affecting the Arctic, like a recent polar bear habitat designation, local residents often find themselves stuck in between protecting a resource for the future and retaining the right to use it sustainably in the present.

Now that the petition has been filed, the opposing parties may file a similar petition.

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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