U.S. Supreme Court rejects fossil fuel industry effort to remove protection for threatened polar bears

Polar bears will keep their endangered species status. Photo by Eric Regehr, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Global warming seen as main threat to Arctic predators

Staff Report

Endangered Species Act protection for polar bears will remain in place following a U.S. Supreme Court decision late last week to reject an attempt by the fossil fuel industry to overturn the 2010 listing.

At issue was a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s to designate more than 120 million acres as critical habitat in Alaska for imperiled polar bears. The Supreme Court decision came just days after President Trump issued an executive order that attempts to rescind a ban on new offshore oil drilling in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.

“This victory helps ensure that polar bears keep the habitat protections they need for a shot at surviving our rapidly warming world,” said Kristen Monsell, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney. “But as Arctic sea ice continues to melt away, we’ve got to do a lot more. Polar bears and so many other species will disappear forever unless we stop Trump from green-lighting every dirty fossil fuel project he sees.”

The Supreme Court decision came in response to a challenge by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and the state of Alaska to the 2010 critical habitat designation, which includes about 187,000 square miles of sea ice, barrier islands and coastal areas in Alaska.

The plaintiffs complained that the protections for polar bear habitat would impede oil drilling in the Arctic. The Endangered Species Act prohibits federal agencies from authorizing activities that will destroy or harm a listed species’ critical habitat. Critical habitat designation does not impact subsistence activities by Alaska Native communities.

The polar bear was protected as a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, following a Center petition to list the species.  Federal wildlife officials early this year released a report calling climate change the biggest threat to the polar bear’s survival.

“It cannot be overstated that the single most important action for the recovery of polar bears is to significantly reduce the present levels of global greenhouse gas emissions,” says the report released in January by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Scientists predict that more than two-thirds of the world’s polar bears, including all the bears in Alaska, will be gone by 2050, unless strong action is taken. Arctic sea ice — which polar bears depend on for hunting and raising their cubs — hit a new record low in 2017 for the third straight year.

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