SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal appeals court ruling regarding an endangered seal species will have an impact far from the Arctic Circle, environmentalists say.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was correct in listing the Pacific bearded seal as endangered because climate change will endanger its habitat before the end of the century.
Protections under the Endangered Species Act could affect offshore oil drilling and harvests by Alaska Native communities who depend upon the seals' meat and fur for subsistence.
Environmentalists welcomed the ruling, describing it as “great” for the bearded seal, but also for other species that will be affected by climate change.
This was the strongest ruling yet in support of specific climate change projections, said Emily Jeffers, a California-based staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The court said that the climate change projections are reliable and that this species is covered under the Endangered Species Act.” Jeffers told the Northern California Record.
There was a previous ruling on polar bears, but that was not as specific, not “quite as exciting,” Jeffers said.
“While the sea ice melting is the clearest and most obvious sign of climate change, this ruling will likely have an impact on other species, both on land and water," she said.
She cited two examples, that of the Californian coastal abalone sea snail potentially affected by changes in the chemistry of the water caused by ice melt, and wolves, which are directly affected and are glacier dependent.
Jeffers said she would not be surprised if there is an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but predicted the court will not take it up because there is no controversy in law that climate change is happening.
Those opposed to the designation did not argue against climate change, but did disagree about the projections and, on that basis, the endangered designation.
Kara Moriarty, CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, told the Alaska Dispatch News, "This is not what Congress intended when it enacted [the Endangered Species Act]" and that the NMFS for listing the bearded seal was "based on conjecture rather than science."
Moriarty told the newspaper her association is considering asking for en banc review or appealing to the Supreme Court. Judge Richard Paez wrote for the panel: "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 reversed a 2014 ruling that the NMFS made an "arbitrary and capricious decision" when it listed bearded seals as threatened because the loss of habitat to climate change was based on "hollow speculation,” according to a report in Courthouse News.
The 9th Circuit found the “listing decision was reasonable" for "'certain sea ice seal' species.”
Court documents state that the NMFS "clearly fulfilled its procedural and substantive obligations" under the act. The court held that "the administrative record demonstrated that NMFS provided a reasonable evidence-based justification for its mid-century and end-of-century sea ice predictions."