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Federal judge in Alaska rules against plan to designate critical polar bear habitat

Alaska Dispatch
Courtesy Alan & Elaine Wilson

An Alaska federal judge ruled Friday against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's plan to designate 187,000 square miles of protected critical habitat -- an area larger than California -- for Alaska's threatened polar bear population, according to the Associated Press.

In a written order, U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline ruled that the designation was admirable because the protection of polar bears, officially designated as "threatened" in the U.S., is important, but that the current designation was "too extensive."

Beistline noted that the USFWS failed to follow the Endangered Species Act procedures as required by the state and did not adequately show that the designated 187,000-mile area contained the right features essential for polar bear conservation.

In response to the ruling U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement of support:

The court made the right decision today. The government clearly overreached in designating such a large swath of Alaska -- an area larger than the size of California -- as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act. The only real impact of the designation would have been to make life more difficult for the residents of North Slope communities, and make any kind of economic development more difficult or even impossible. The fact is that our polar bear populations are abundant and healthy, and occupy their entire historic range.

Alaska's executive branch was similarly supportive of Beistline's decision.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service’s attempt to classify massive sections of resource-rich North Slope lands as critical habitat is the latest in a long string of examples of the federal government encroaching on our state’s rights,” said Gov. Sean Parnell in a prepared statement Friday afternoon. “I am pleased the State of Alaska was able to fight off this concerted effort to kill jobs and economic development in Alaska.”

“The court made the right decision in rejecting this unwarranted listing of critical habitat by the Service,” said Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty. “Protecting polar bears is a priority for us all, but such measures must carefully comply with the requirements of the statute.”

The vacated habitat designation will be sent back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review and reconsideration. Read more.