The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [official website] on Tuesday upheld [opinion, PDF] a set of regulations issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) [official website] that provide legal protection to oil companies if the companies incidentally harm small numbers of walruses or polar bears [FWS backgrounder]. The Ninth Circuit held that oil companies operating off the northwest coast of Alaska will only have a negligible effect on polar bears and walruses, and that the FWS regulations were thus reasonable. The plaintiffs in the case, Center for Biological Diversity [advocacy website], argued [AP report] that the regulations failed to ensure that both individual animals and entire populations are analyzed for protection as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) [materials]. In upholding the regulations, the Ninth Circuit declared that the FWS acted reasonably in determining that the oil companies' actions would only marginally harm wildlife in the arctic:
Section 101(a)(5)(A) of the MMPA requires the [FWS] to determine separately that a specified activity will take only “small numbers” of marine mammals, and that the take will have only a "negligible impact" on the species or stock. We hold that the Service permissibly determined that only "relatively small numbers" of polar bears and Pacific walruses would be taken in relation to the size of their larger populations, because the agency separately determined that the anticipated take would have only a "negligible impact" on the mammals' annual rates of recruitment or survival. The "small numbers" determination was consistent with the statute and was not arbitrary and capricious.It is unclear if the Center for Biological Diversity plans to appeal the ruling.
The FWS has been involved in several legal disputes in recent years. In October the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] ruled [JURIST report] that the FWS is not obligated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a contributor to global warming [JURIST news archive], in order to protect polar bears. In June 2011 a federal judge upheld a decision [JURIST report] by the FWS in 2008 to classify polar bears as "threatened" on the endangered species list. Although polar bears are an unendangered population now, it is predicted that melting ice caps will kill 10,000 of the species [AP report].