Appeals Court Upholds Endangered Species Act Protection for Polar Bears

Ruling Confirms That Global Warming Threatens Polar Bears With Extinction

WASHINGTON (March 1, 2013) – The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today upheld a 2008 decision to protect polar bears throughout their range as a “threatened” species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The court dismissed challenges by the state of Alaska, polar bear trophy hunters and others seeking to strip the polar bear of its protection.

The 2008 listing resulted from a 2005 petition and litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace. The polar bear was the first species added to the endangered species list due solely to the threat from global warming. 

“Today’s decision is the latest legal confirmation of the indisputable science on climate change and the very real threats that polar bears face,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “If we’re going to save polar bears, the Obama administration needs to move swiftly to cut greenhouse pollution.”

The appeals court ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to protect the bear due to the melting of the Arctic sea ice was well supported in every regard. The court also noted the listing decision was, if anything, underprotective of the polar bear, rather than overprotective as argued by Alaska. The court noted that “the 2007 record sea ice declines are an extension of an accelerating trend of minimum sea ice conditions and further support the concern that current sea ice models may be conservative and underestimate the rate and level of change expected in the future.”

Polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting and other essential behaviors. Scientists warn that continuing loss of sea ice could send key bear populations into abrupt decline. Without help, more than two-thirds of the planet’s polar bears, including all the bears in Alaska, will likely be gone by 2050.

The Center, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Greenpeace and Defenders of Wildlife had intervened as defendants in the case to support maintaining protections for the bear.

“This ruling forces Alaska to acknowledge what has been painfully clear to everyone else: polar bears are on a collision course with climate change and deserve protection,” said Rebecca Riley, attorney in NRDC’s land and wildlife program. “Now, we need to get serious about tackling climate change and other threats to the species like hunting and toxic contamination.”

“Today’s court’s decision acknowledges the devastating impact of global warming on polar bears, and ensures that important legal protections for the species will be continued,” said John Hocevar, Greenpeace Oceans Campaign Director.

Today’s ruling comes as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) meeting gets underway in Bangkok this week. The United States proposal to increase CITES protection for polar bears due to increased hunting pressure and to ban international trade in polar bear parts will be considered at the CITES meeting.