Supreme Court rejects Alaska oil industry challenge of endangered species

Bearded seal pup, Erignathus barbatus. NOAA photo.
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Following a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, an endangered species found in Alaska will continue to enjoy its federally protected status.

The species in question, the bearded seals or Erignathus barbatus, have seen their habitat reduced over time, which scientists say is due to environmental and climate factors which shrink sea ice.

Due to this, the species was designated as "threatened" in 2012 by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, "No seal can always be in the water; Arctic seals need the ice's solid surface to carry out basic survival activities, from resting to molting to raising young."

This 2012-era protection was challenged, and went all the way up to the Supreme Court level, by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, American Petroleum Institute, and state of Alaska.

The 2012 decision was appealed in 2016, and later upheld in favor of the seals' protection.

According to the CBD, this challenge was made primarily due to complaints that the protections would impede oil drilling in the Arctic.

Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the protections are the seal species' only "shot at survival."

“Endangered species protection is the bearded seal’s only hope, so we’re glad the justices rejected the oil industry’s baseless plea to hear this case,” Monsell said. “The agency’s decision to list this species, and the 9th Circuit’s decision upholding it, were well reasoned and the right call under the law.”

The decision is made all the more timely with a recent policy reversal from the Department of the Interior, effectively opening up the possibility of drilling along thousands of miles of US coastal water, including the Arctic.

According to CBD, the bearded seals themselves "could disappear forever" if the Trump administration allows development in the waters which are at once protected habitat, and also now open for drilling.

The Endangered Species Act will provide protection for some areas, and not others. Federal officials are required to specify which habitat is critical, and where "activities that jeopardize the seals’ survival or recovery" are prohibited.

USFWS photo.

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