Supreme Court rejects appeal of bearded seal listing

January 22, 2018

FILE--This Sept. 5, 2006, file photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows a bearded seal in Kotzebue, Alaska. The U.S. Supreme Court has left intact a lower court ruling that declared Alaska's bearded seal population a threatened species. (Michael Cameron/NOAA Fisheries Service via AP, file)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court will not review a lower court ruling that confirmed Alaska’s bearded seal population as a threatened species.

The court Monday declined to review a conclusion by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the National Marine Fisheries Service had acted properly in listing Arctic Ocean bearded seals as threatened because of projected sea ice loss.

The state of Alaska, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the American Petroleum Institute and a handful of Alaska municipalities and development groups appealed. A senior assistant attorney general for Alaska, Cori Mills, called the decision disappointing.

“We still believe that the decision to list the bearded seal based on projections 100 years into the future was not supported by adequate science and contrary to any reasonable interpretation of the Endangered Species Act,” Mills said in an email. “We will explore our administrative options to right this wrong for listing a species robust in health and numbers.”

The Interior Department listed polar bears as threatened in 2008. The listing of ringed seals, the main prey of polar bears, and bearded seals followed in December 2012. All were tied to projected loss of sea ice in the Arctic.

Bearded seals get their name from short snouts covered with thick, long, white whiskers. They grow as large as 8 feet (2.4 meters), weigh up to 800 pounds (363 kilograms) and can live to 25 years or more. They eat Arctic cod and shrimp but also dive for crab and clams, usually in depths less than 325 feet (100 meters), according to federal managers.

Bearded seals give birth and rear pups on drifting pack ice over shallow water where prey is abundant. Females that give birth need pack ice to last long enough in the spring and early summer to successfully reproduce and molt.

A projected retreat of sea ice from shallow shelves decreases food availability, the listing petition said.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed the petition seeking the bearded seal listing and praised the decision by the Supreme Court. Center attorney Kristen Monsell said Monday the decision follows the law and gives bearded seals protections they need.

The decision was based on the best science available, she said, including climate models that may have been too conservative in projections of less spring and early summer sea ice. More that 70 percent of the population whelps in the Bering Sea, she said.

“Those conditions might exist as early as the next decade,” she said.

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