Bearded seals dwelling in the icy waters between Alaska and Russia will remain protected under the Endangered Species Act after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected an attempt to reverse that status Monday.
The United States’ highest court announced that it will not hear an appeal filed by oil industry advocates, the state of Alaska, the North Slope Borough and others seeking to overturn the threatened listing granted to bearded seals in 2012. The threatened listing, which applies to bearded seals in the Beringian region and in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk, had been initially overturned in 2014 by U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline in Alaska as “arbitrary and capricious,” but was reinstated in 2016 by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The legal path for the threatened listing started in 2008 as a result of a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace seeking Endangered Species Act protections for another ice-dependent seal species, the ribbon seal. In a settlement, NOAA agreed to review the status of all four species of seals that use ice in Arctic waters off Alaska.
Ultimately, the ribbon seal did not get Endangered Species Act listing, though it was designated by NOAA as a “species of concern.”
Bearded, ringed and spotted seals did get threatened designations, though for spotted seals the designation was only for a distinct population segment outside of U.S. waters.
The same groups that sought to overturn the bearded seal listing – the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, American Petroleum Institute, North Slope Borough, the state of Alaska and others — also sued to overturn the listing for ringed seals. Beistline in 2016 issued a decision similar to that he made for the bearded seals, overturning the listing. The agency and environmentalists appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit Court, and oral arguments were held in December, said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The 9th Circuit issued a stay delaying its decision on ringed seals, pending a Supreme Court determination on whether it would take on the bearded seal case before issuing its ruling on ringed seals, Monsell said. Now that the Supreme Court has rejected the attempt to overturn the bearded seal listing, she believes a 9th Circuit decision on ringed seals will come soon, she said.
“We are very confident that we will win that lawsuit as well and the ESA protections will be retained for the ringed seals,” she said.