On Jan. 11, 2013, Judge Ralph Beistline of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska issued a decision striking down the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) final rule designating more than 187,000 square miles of critical habitat for the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The designated area is larger than the state of California.
According to Becky Bohrer from the Huffington Post, “The federal government declared the polar bear threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, citing melting sea ice. The move made the polar bear the first species to be designated as threatened under the act because of global warming.”
The designation was challenged by the oil and gas industry, the state of Alaska and by several native Alaskan groups. Although the judge upheld the rule against 10 claims by the plaintiffs, the court found that the agency failed to explain why inclusion of such a large area of critical habitat was justified. The court explained that FWS:
“…cannot designate a large swath of land in northern Alaska as “critical habitat” based entirely on one essential feature that is located in approximately one percent of the area set aside. The Service has not shown and the record does not contain evidence that Unit 2 contains all of the required physical or biological features of terrestrial denning habitat [primary constituent element], and thus the final rule violates the APA’s arbitrary and capricious standard.”
The court also found that FWS failed to follow applicable procedures under the ESA by not providing the state of Alaska with adequate justification for not incorporating the state’s comments into the final rule. As a result of the decision, the critical habitat rule was remanded to the agency for further consideration.
Bohrer reports, “U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said [Judge] Beistline made the right decision, calling the bear populations ‘abundant and healthy’.”
“The only real impact of the designation would have been to make life more difficult for the residents of North Slope communities, and make any kind of economic development more difficult or even impossible,” Murkowsky said in a statement.