In a groundbreaking precedent that will likely be felt for decades to come, a federal appeals court in the US has ruled that a species can be listed as “threatened” based on climate change projections.
Earlier today, a three-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court unanimously rejected an appeal launched by several oil company groups, the state of Alaska, and indigenous Alaskans to prevent a Pacific bearded seal subspecies from acquiring environmental protections. When explaining their decision, the judges said that loss of Arctic sea ice would “almost certainly” threaten the survival of the seals by the end of the century. Importantly, the court made its decision by looking at observational and predictive data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which included six climate models.
It’s a big victory for the defendants, the National Marine Fisheries Services and the Center for Biological Diversity, not to mention the seals themselves. The decision reinstates Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the bearded seals, but it also sets an important precedent moving forward.
“The service need not wait until a species’ habitat is destroyed to determine that habitat loss may facilitate extinction,” wrote Judge Richard A. Paez in the decision (pdf). The fisheries service “adopted the position of the overwhelming majority of the world’s climate scientists,” while rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument against the use of climate projections. In order for a species to get ESA protections, the court said the evidence doesn’t have to be completely “ironclad and absolute.” It simply needs the NOAA Fisheries agency to “consider the best and most reliable scientific and commercial data and to identify the limits of that data when making a listing determination.”
The Pacific bearded seals depend on winter sea-ice habitat off the coasts of Alaska and Russia. These seals gather on the ice floes over the shallow waters, where mothers give birth to pups and nurse. These flows also provide the seals with close access to food resources (such as animals that live on the ocean floor), and a place from which pups can safely learn to dive, swim and forage away from predators.
Climate scientists worry that summer sea ice across the Arctic could disappear in as little as 20 years, while winter ice could be reduced by at least 40 percent by 2050. At the same time, the bearded seals face threats from proposed offshore and oil and gas development—areas in which an oil spill would be practically impossible to clean up. It’s a tough blow for the energy industry, which will have to honor the ESA and rethink its plans in the region. Importantly, indigenous Alaskans will still be allowed to harvest the seas for subsistence.
Looking ahead, this precedent could see other climate change-threatened animals getting the same protections, including polar bears, seabirds, fish, and amphibians. And as a reminder that climate change poses a real risk to animals, the Bramble Cay melomys was listed as extinct earlier this year—the first mammal to be wiped out by climate change.