A polar bear dries off after taking a swim in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska. (Brian Battaile/U.S. Geological Survey via AP, File/AP Photo/Dan Joling, File)
Polar bear habitat protected
March 07, 2016
Call it a legal victory for polar bears.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed the law when it designated more than 187,000 square miles as critical habitat for threatened polar bears. This is what a court of appeals has ruled. The area is in Alaska marine waters and its northern coast. The area is larger than California.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals made the decision. It reversed a 2013 lower court decision. The latest ruling is a victory for the polar bears, said a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity. The center had petitioned to designate polar bears as a threatened species. "The polar bear gets the full protection of critical habitat to which it's entitled, it deserves and it truly needs," Brendan Cummings said. He is with the center.
The federal government has declared polar bears threatened. The decision was made in 2008. It was made under the Endangered Species Act. The government cited melting sea ice. Polar bears need ice. They use it for hunting, breeding and migrating.
The move made the polar bear the first species to be designated as threatened under the act because of global warming.
A designation of critical habitat is required as part of a recovery plan. The Fish and Wildlife Service set aside the land. It is along Alaska's northern coast. But 95 percent of it is in the ocean waters of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
The Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the state of Alaska sued. That is along with a coalition of Alaska Native groups and other oil and gas interests. They called the designation an overreach.
Former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said the critical habitat designation included areas that account for almost half of Alaska's oil production. Parnell said petroleum exploration and production would be impacted. It could be delayed or restricted, he said.
U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline originally had ruled that the Fish and Wildlife Service's designation of sea ice as critical habitat was valid. However, he said the agency had not shown that areas on land and barrier islands had features making them appropriate for polar bear dens. He rejected the entire plan.
But the appeals court judges disagreed. They said Beistline's district court decision appeared to consider the bears' denning habitat. But it did not consider the need by bears to have undisturbed access. It is required for them to get to and from sea ice.
The appeals court judges said the agency did not have to prove that polar bears actually used certain designated areas. They only needed to show that those areas were critical to the conservation of the species. The judges said the agency drew rational conclusions. The agency, they said, had used the best scientific evidence available.
Cummings said specificity in designating habitat is impossible. That is because of the dynamic nature of the Arctic. Polar bears move by walking. Or they move by merely resting on shifting sea ice. Polar bears, he said, are not like salmon. The fish return to the same streams every year to spawn.
"You can't say the bear will take this specific path to its denning area. And therefore, let's only protect that narrow corridor," he said. "You need to protect on the scale of the ecosystem." He said that is what Fish and Wildlife did.
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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Who is threatening the polar bears' habitat?
Write your answers in the comments section below