Supreme Court rejects case challenging feds over polar bear habitat in Alaska

By Erica Martinson, Alaska Dispatch News - May 2, 2017

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court declined Monday to hear a case appealing the federal government’s decision to designate more than 187,000 square miles in Alaska as critical habitat for threatened polar bears.

The state of Alaska and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association — joined by Native corporations and local governments — brought lawsuits against the Interior Department to overturn the regulation.

But the Supreme Court said it would not accept the case. That means an appeals court ruling backing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation will stand.

A polar bear walks along the edge of Arctic Ocean sea ice in Alaska's Chukchi Sea in 2014. (Brian Battaile / USGS)
A polar bear walks on sea ice in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska in 2014. (Brian Battaile / USGS)

The federal government set aside the area in Alaska’s Arctic in December 2010.

A district court shot down the federal government’s polar bear habitat designation, but an appeals court panel later overturned the decision.

Groups appealing the decision argued that the Fish and Wildlife Service overreached its authority in the name of an action that would have no conservation benefit but major economic consequences.

Besides the state and AOGA, the groups included Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the North Slope Borough, NANA Regional Corp. Inc., Bering Straits Native Corp., Calista Corp., Tikigaq Corp., Olgoonik Corp. Inc., Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp., Kuupik Corp., Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.

The groups complained to the Supreme Court that the decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals left the agency free to make “sweeping designations (in this case an area the size of California) that overlap with existing human development (including, even, industrial areas).” And in Alaska, they said, the polar bear habitat designation interfered with tribal sovereignty and the operations of the oil industry.

“Swept within that enormous block of land are the entire ancestral homelands for certain Native communities, as well as the largest and most productive oil field in North America,” the oil and gas group wrote to the Supreme Court. While 96 percent of the habitat area is sea ice, the remaining area includes “industrial facilities, garbage dumps, airports, communities, and homes (from which bears are actively chased away) as ‘critical’ habitat that is purportedly free from ‘human disturbance’ or otherwise ‘unobstructed,’ ” the petition said.

“Polar bears are threatened by projected loss of sea ice habitat due to climate change, not on-the-ground activities in the Arctic.”

The groups argued that the broad standard the 9th Circuit set in its ruling could be used to expand habitat designations across the United States.

The federal government defended its decisions, telling the court it set the habitat area after two rounds of public comment and using the best scientific data available, based on “features essential to the conservation of polar bears in the United States.”

“The Service did not designate any areas outside the geographical area currently occupied by polar bears because it determined that ‘occupied areas are sufficient for the conservation of polar bears in the United States,’ ” the federal government told the Supreme Court.