Court backs seal protections on climate change grounds

Court backs seal protections on climate change grounds
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A federal appeals court ruled Monday that the Obama administration had the right to use climate change to justify federal protections for the bearded seal.

The ruling from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a lower court ruling from 2014 and upheld the 2012 decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to designate the bearded seal as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

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The ruling is an important victory for the Obama administration and could help build a precedent of using climate change forecasts for decisions like species protections.

The case hinged on an argument from the oil industry and the state of Alaska that the NMFS relied on climate projections that were not reliable for the time period for which the agency used them.

“This case turns on one issue: When NMFS determines that a species that is not presently endangered will lose its habitat due to climate change by the end of the century, may NMFS list that species as threatened under the Endangered Species Act?” the appeals court asked in its ruling, answering in the affirmative.

“The fact that climate projections for 2050 through 2100 may be volatile does not deprive those projections of value in the rulemaking process,” the court wrote. “The ESA does not require NMFS to make listing decisions only if underlying research is ironclad and absolute.”

The NMFS’s conclusions rested on predictions about how the loss of sea ice due to global warming would harm the species.

The case applies to a distinct population of bearded seals designated as the Beringia population, native to waters surrounding Alaska. The NMFS has also instituted protections for a population native to Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk; the lower court declined to rule on that decision, so it was not appealed.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned for the federal government for the listing in 2008 and joined the litigation on the NMFS’s behalf, cheered the appeals court ruling.

“This is a huge victory for bearded seals and shows the vital importance of the Endangered Species Act in protecting species threatened by climate change,” Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the group, said in a statement.

“This decision will give bearded seals a fighting chance while we work to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions melting their sea-ice habitat and keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground,” she said.

The oil industry and Alaska may appeal the three-judge panel’s ruling to the full circuit court.