Appeals judges uphold protection of ringed seals

Judges find will likely will become endangered in the foreseeable future due to climate change

A photo of a ringed seal by NOAA Seal Survey

Judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals have reversed a lower court decision, upholding Endangered Species Act protection for ringed seals.

The appeals court ruling of Feb. 12 said that the Arctic ringed seal is more likely than not to become endangered in the foreseeable future, due to climate change. That decision could impact future limits on Arctic exploration and development of oil and gas projects.

The decision reversed a 2017 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline in Anchorage favoring the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

AOGA contended in March of 2013, while announcing its intent to sue, that there was no scientific evidence linking climate change then or in the future to adverse effects on bearded and ringed seals, and that their populations were healthy, abundant and thriving. The association, a business trade association, counts among its members the majority of oil and gas exploration, production, transportation, refining and marketing entities in Alaska.

The appeal brought by the Center for Biological Diversity arose from the National Marine Fisheries Service decision to list the ringed seal as threatened under ESA. NMFS and other defendants appealed the federal district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of AOGA and other plaintiffs.

The appeals court ruled that the lower court misapplied a section of the ESA by requiring quantit6atie data that is not available. The district court cannot require the agency to “wait until it has quantitative data reflecting the species’ decline, its population tipping point, and the exact year in which that tipping point would occur before it could adopt conservation policies to prevent that species’ decline,” the appeals court said.

Like the bearded seals, climate change models show that habitat of the Arctic ringed seals to be diminishing as sea ice recedes, the court said.

The decision relied heavily on the Ninth Circuit Court’s 2016 decision upholding ESA protections for bearded seals, another Arctic species threatened by climate change. The court also found in that case that climate change models from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that ringed seal habitat is diminishing as sea ice recedes and that a species reliant on sea ice likely would become endangered in the foreseeable future.

The decision was hailed by the Center for Biological Diversity as giving vital protections to ringed seals faced by climate change and melting sea ice.

“The decision underscores the recklessness of the Trump administration’s proposal to open up the Arctic Ocean to oil drilling,” said Kristen Monsell, who argued the case for the Center.

Ringed seals birth their pups in snow caves built on sea ice. As global warming reduces the snowpack there, the snow caves collapse, leaving pups vulnerable to death by freezing or from predators.