Court of Appeals upholds decision to protect polar bears as a threatened species

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Surviving in the Arctic (photo: U.S. Geological Survey)

Surviving in the Arctic (photo: U.S. Geological Survey)

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on March 1 upheld a 2008 scientifically based decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect polar bears throughout their range as a “threatened” species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The court found that the FWS's "scientific conclusions are amply supported by data and well within the mainstream on climate science and polar bear biology. Thirteen of the fourteen peer reviewers to whom FWS submitted the proposed rule found that it generally 'represented a thorough, clear, and balanced review of the best scientific information available from both published and unpublished sources of the current status of polar bears' and that it 'justified the conclusion that polar bears face threats throughout their range.'"

From the Baltimore Sun, March 1: "Federal court upholds polar bear status as threatened species"

SEATTLE — The federal law listing polar bears as a threatened species was upheld Friday by a federal appeals court, which rejected arguments that it is wrong to impose far-ranging and possibly costly protections for a species that remains fairly abundant in many regions of the Arctic.

Concluding that attacks on the listing “amount to nothing more than competing views on policy and science,” the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., upheld the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2008 decision to protect the animals because the dramatic loss of sea ice leaves them likely to become in danger of extinction.

There are still about 25,000 polar bears around the world, many of them in relatively healthy populations, but scientists fear that climate change is rapidly affecting their ability to sustain those numbers after the next half-century.

Polar bears depend on sea ice as a platform for hunting and often use it for denning. Its loss near the productive, shallow waters close to shore could soon leave the animals in danger of steep decline, federal authorities concluded in their listing decision, which was upheld by the court.

The issue has been highly controversial, particularly in Alaska, where polar bears live side by side with the state’s powerful oil and gas industry. The animal's protection under the Endangered Species Act means much more formidable hurdles for obtaining oil drilling permits, especially as offshore operations expand into the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. ... 

Text of U.S. Court of Appeals decision IN RE: POLAR BEAR ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT LISTING AND SECTION 4(d) RULE LITIGATION – MDL NO. 1993

From Center for Biological Diversity press release:

Appeals Court Upholds Endangered Species Act Protection

for Polar Bears

Ruling Confirms That Global Warming Threatens Polar Bears

With Extinction

WASHINGTON— The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld a 2008 decision to protect polar bears throughout their range as a “threatened” species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The court dismissed challenges by the state of Alaska, polar bear trophy hunters and others seeking to strip the polar bear of its protection.

The 2008 listing resulted from a 2005 petition and litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace. The polar bear was the first species added to the endangered species list due solely to the threat from global warming.

“Today’s decision is the latest legal confirmation of the indisputable science on climate change and the very real threats that polar bears face,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “If we’re going to save polar bears, the Obama administration needs to move swiftly to cut greenhouse pollution.”

The appeals court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to protect the bear due to the melting of the Arctic sea ice was well supported in every regard. The court also noted the listing decision was, if anything, underprotective of the polar bear, rather than overprotective as argued by Alaska. The court noted that “the 2007 record sea ice declines are an extension of an accelerating trend of minimum sea ice conditions and further support the concern that current sea ice models may be conservative and underestimate the rate and level of change expected in the future.”

Polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting and other essential behaviors. Scientists warn that continuing loss of sea ice could send key bear populations into abrupt decline. Without help, more than two-thirds of the planet’s polar bears, including all the bears in Alaska, will likely be gone by 2050.

The Center, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Greenpeace and Defenders of Wildlife had intervened as defendants in the case to support maintaining protections for the bear.

“This ruling forces Alaska to acknowledge what has been painfully clear to everyone else: polar bears are on a collision course with climate change and deserve protection,” said Rebecca Riley, attorney in NRDC’s land and wildlife program. “Now, we need to get serious about tackling climate change and other threats to the species like hunting and toxic contamination.”

“Today’s court’s decision acknowledges the devastating impact of global warming on polar bears, and ensures that important legal protections for the species will be continued,” said John Hocevar, Greenpeace Oceans Campaign Director.

Today’s ruling comes as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting gets underway in Bangkok this week. The United States proposal to increase CITES protection for polar bears due to increased hunting pressure and to ban international trade in polar bear parts will be considered at the CITES meeting.

h/t Nick Sundt, WWF

Some earlier posts:

Polar bears: “threatened” or “endangered”? (December 26, 2010)

Arctic seals listed as threatened by climate change; polar bears get critical habitat designation (December 8. 2010)

Environmental groups force “critical habitat” designation for polar bears, despite Palin’s lawsuit (October 6, 2008)

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