U.S. Supreme Court rejects appeal of protections for Alaska’s bearded seals

Alaska's largest ice seal will keep federal protections despite concerns they're based on climate change forecasts a century in the future.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected requests to review protections for bearded seals that live in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

The nation's highest court denied an appeal by the oil industry and other groups including the state of Alaska to review a 2016 Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that reinstated protections for the seals.

The appeal was also filed by Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the North Slope Borough, NANA Regional Corp. Inc., the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope and the Northwest Arctic Borough.

A separate petition for review was filed by the Alaska Oil & Gas Association and American Petroleum Institute.

Cori Mills, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Law, expressed disappointment the court was unwilling to hear the case.

"We still believe that the decision to list the bearded seal based on projections 100 years into the future was not supported by adequate science and contrary to any reasonable interpretation of the Endangered Species Act," Mills said in a statement Monday. "We will explore our administrative options to right this wrong for listing a species robust in health and numbers."

She didn't say what options that might include.

Bearded seals are the largest of four Arctic seal species in Alaska waters — collectively known as "ice seals" — that rely on sea ice for feeding, resting and pupping, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Their name reflects their long facial whiskers.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in 2012 protected the seals as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency found that anticipated summer sea ice declines in coming decades could harm the seals, which give birth and rear their pups on the ice.

But in 2014, a U.S. District Court overturned the threatened listing because Alaska's seal population was healthy and faced no immediate threat, the state said last July when the appeals were filed. The court determined NMFS should not have listed the species "based solely upon speculation" regarding sea ice loss by the end of this century.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals restored protections in October 2016, saying future dangers warranted a listing.

That's the decision the state, industry and others hoped the Supreme Court would take up and potentially overturn.

Along with the federal agencies involved, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity intervened in the appeal.

The center's Kristen Monsell said the state's opposition to the listing ignored climate models produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and subsequent studies that indicated panel projections might not go far enough.

"We have climate models widely recognized as the consensus on climate change showing that the sea ice habitat the seals need to survive will be dramatically reduced to the point where it's practically nonexistent," Monsell said.

She said the Supreme Court's action Monday cleared the way for another Ninth Circuit case involving ringed seals to proceed.

The center has also notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service it plans to sue over the decision to not grant federal protection to walruses.

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.