In a ruling that has ramifications for land-use and water policy across the United States and California, a federal appeals court ruled Monday that scientists can draw on long-range climate projections to determine whether a species should be listed as threatened.
On Monday, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a 2014 ruling made by a lower court in Alaska. The lower court determined federal regulators were relying on speculation and conjecture to determine that bearded seal populations would lose so much of their Arctic sea-ice habitat to a warming climate that they would be endangered by 2095. Noting that the sparse seal population is spread through a vast area of the Arctic making seals difficult to count, the lower court described the agency’s findings as “arbitrary and capricious.”
But in Monday’s ruling, the appellate court ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service used the best available science and climate models to list the seals as threatened. Moreover, an agency “need not wait until a species’ habitat is destroyed to determine that habitat loss may facilitate extinction,” Judge Richard A. Paez wrote for the three-judge panel.
The ruling was hailed by environmentalists and research groups, who say it allows agencies to take immediate action to protect species in the face of climate change. The ruling could spur new protections for numerous California species, from the bunny-like American pika to salmon and other fish under threat from droughts and warming rivers induced by climate change.
“The implications for California, and frankly, the entire nation, are profound: This court ruling recognizes that climate change is a real threat, that climate science and models are scientifically sound, and that the Endangered Species Act requires we use information on future risks to protect species today, rather than waiting for the downward spiral of extinction to begin,” Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute said in an email.
Conservative and business groups, however, decried the ruling as a dangerous precedent. They noted that it follows another recent 9th Circuit ruling that protected polar bears facing habitat loss from climate change, and said similar arguments could be used to limit logging and mining in California.
“The takeaway from these cases is that the courts simply will not question scientific evidence offered by an agency in the same way that a court would question that same evidence were it offered in a dispute between private parties,” Damien Schiff of the Pacific Legal Foundation said in an email.
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned federal regulators to protect the seals in 2008. Groups fighting the petition included the state of Alaska and the American Petroleum Institute.