A bearded seal. Photo: Budd Christman / National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps
Environment | Law | National

Supreme Court passes on climate change case that drew tribal interest



The U.S. Supreme Court won't be hearing a climate change dispute that drew intense interest among Alaska Natives.

Without comment, the justices on Monday denied petitions in Alaska v. Ross and Alaska Oil and Gas Association v. Ross. The action, which came in an order list, means bearded seals will remain protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Tribes, Alaska Native corporations and Alaska Native organizations opposed the listing because it limits their traditional subsistence activities. They were all the more concerned because they believe the bearded seal population in the Arctic remains healthy and strong.

"The listing of the bearded seal (and other similarly situated species) imposes significant economic and other regulatory impediments on the Alaska Natives' use of these lands and waters to ensure their own survival and perpetuate their traditional way of life," the Alaska Federation of Natives, the largest organization of its kind in the state, wrote in a brief to the Supreme Court.

The case therefore posed another critical question. Though Alaska Natives are among leaders in climate change efforts, they said the bearded seal listing represented an unlawful interpretation of the Endangered Species Act, which became law in 1973, long before climate change surfaced as a hot-button political issue.

"Alaska and her citizens -- particularly her Native groups -- will suffer the painful consequences of this misreading of the statute alone," a petition joined by Native communities and Native corporations read. "Alaska Native communities that have called this land home for millennia depend on the unencumbered use of their land-land they fought to retain in the settlement of their aboriginal land claims-for the survival of their traditional ways of life."

But Alaska Natives, along with the state of Alaska and the energy industry, were on the losing side of the battle. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a unanimous decision, ruled that the federal government could indeed consider climate change when looking at threatened or endangered species.

"There is no debate that temperatures will continue to increase over the remainder of the century and that the effects will be particularly acute in the Arctic," Judge Richard A. Paez wrote in October 2016. The ruling now stands as a result of the Supreme Court's action on Monday.

Even though the bearded seal won't be on the docket, another species will be. The justices on Monday agreed to hear Weyerhaeuser Company v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which affects a habitat designation for the dusky gopher frog.

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