Alaska Polar Bear Habitat Questioned

Federal environmental regulators and conservation groups fought Tuesday to win reinstatement of critical polar bear habitat designations on Alaska’s North Slope after a federal judge found the government protections “arbitrary.”

Alaska’s oil and gas industry lawyer came in for tough questions during those arguments before a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in San Francisco.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association contends the U.S. Fish and Wildlife designation of critical habitat for the bears was unprecedented and “will not result in any present or anticipated future conservation benefit to the polar bear species.”

The association wants to preserve a 2013 order that struck down the designations by the USFWS.

Judge Mary Schroeder asked what the agency should have done.  “It doesn’t seem arbitrary if the area where polar bears den is 2.8 miles from the coast to say [the habitat] should be five miles.  That doesn’t seem arbitrary,” she said.

“The polar bear is an apex preditor that will eat people if allowed,” said industry lawyer Jeff Leppo.  Bears are monitored and they are hazed away from those areas where people move, he said, referring to Alaska native villages and the industrial complex around the oil and gas resource.

“It is the height of arbitrary to designate an area where you haze bears away as a critical habitat,” he said.

The area in dispute is along the North Slop of Alaska and on the west coast of Alaska, west of Barrow.

The oil industry and the Alaska Natives communities argued the USFS failed to take into consideration the total economic impact of the designation on the Alaska oil industry and native communities.

The government, along with the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and Defenders of Wildlife argue the designation is critical to allow the polar bears to survive long enough to stop the increase of greenhouse gas and global warming, which will drive the bears to extinction.

The polar bears is going to go extinct if greenhouse gas is not reduced, argued Rebecca Noblin for the conservationists.  Two-thirds will be gone by 2050, including those in Alaska.

Congress has set a policy of “institutional caution” to come down on the side benefiting the endangered species when there is a doubt, she said.

“When the science is uncertain we must cut in favor of the Polar Bear,” she said.

Judges Schroeder, Johnnie Rawlinson and Mary Murguia took the case under submission and will rule in the next few months.

Case: Alaska Oil and Gas Assoc. v. Salazar, No. 13-35619

To watch arguments, click here.

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