District Court Rejects Polar Bear Critical Habitat Designation
January 11, 2013, Anchorage, Alaska – Governor Sean Parnell and Attorney General Michael Geraghty applauded a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, rejecting efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to designate, under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), an area of 187,157 square miles as critical habitat for polar bears. The proposed area accounts for much of Alaska’s oil production.
“The Fish and Wildlife Service’s attempt to classify massive sections of resource-rich North Slope lands as critical habitat is the latest in a long string of examples of the federal government encroaching on our state’s rights,” Governor Parnell said. “I am pleased the State of Alaska was able to fight off this concerted effort to kill jobs and economic development in Alaska.”
The State of Alaska and others, including the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and a broad coalition of representatives of the Alaska Native community from northern and northwestern Alaska, challenged the numerous errors associated with the critical habitat designation.
Of particular concern to the District Court were decisions by the USFWS to list extensive areas of land as critical habitat in the absence of evidence demonstrating features essential to polar bears were even present. As stated by the court, “[USFWS cannot] designate a large swath of land in northern Alaska as ‘critical habitat’ based entirely on one essential feature that is located in approximately one percent of the entire area set aside.”
“The court made the right decision in rejecting this unwarranted listing of critical habitat by the Service,” said Attorney General Michael Geraghty. “Protecting polar bears is a priority for us all, but such measures must carefully comply with the requirements of the statute.”
The State of Alaska also challenged the USFWS for failing to follow appropriate legal procedures in dealing with the comments and concerns raised by the state. The District Court agreed, holding that USFWS “failed to follow applicable ESA procedure by not providing the State with adequate justification for the State’s comments not incorporated into the Final Rule [designating critical habitat].”
Though the court did not agree with all of the State’s and other plaintiffs’ claims, it succinctly summarized one of the primary problems with the USFWS rule, stating, “There is no question that the purpose behind the Service’s designation is admirable, for it is important to protect the polar bear, but such protection must be done correctly. In its current form, the critical habitat designation presents a disconnect between the twin goals of protecting a cherished resource and allowing for growth and much-needed economic development. The current designation went too far and was too extensive.”
The court vacated and remanded the final rule to correct the substantive and procedural deficiencies.