In a closely watched and hotly contested challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to list the Polar Bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in the final listing rule at 73 Fed. Reg. 28,212 (May 15, 2008) (pdf), the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a 116-page opinion (pdf) in which it upheld both the decision to list the bear as threatened, not endangered, and the Service’s interpretation of "endangered species" as a species that is "on the brink of extinction."
As previously reported here, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) argued that "on the brink of extinction" or "in imminent danger of extinction" sets the bar for an endangered listing higher than the language, purpose, and legislative history of the ESA allows. According to CBD, the Service should have determined that the polar bear is endangered because the best available science shows that the bear meets the "in-danger-of-extinction" standard in the ESA. But the court held that "the Service’s definition of an endangered species, as applied to the polar bear, represents a permissible construction of the ESA and must be upheld . . ." under the deferential standard articulated by the Supreme Court in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.
In addition, the court held that "[a]lthough the evidence emphasized by CBD is very troubling, the Court finds that the agency acted well within its discretion to weigh the available facts and scientific information before it in reaching its conclusion that the polar bear was not endangered at the time of listing." In a footnote, the court further explained that "where global warming has been identified as the primary threat to the polar bear’s sea ice habitat and the agency has acknowledged that the global warming trend is unlikely to reverse itself, a conclusion that the species is, in some sense, "in danger of extinction" has undeniable appeal. The [United States Geological Service] population models, which predict a trend of extinction across three of the four polar bear ecoregions in as little as 75 years, particularly give the court pause."
Nevertheless, the court emphasized that under controlling Supreme Court precedent, "this Court is bound to uphold the agency’s determination that the polar bear is a threatened species as long as it is reasonable, regardless of whether there may be other reasonable, or even more reasonable views." Indeed, "[t]hat is particularly true where, as here, the agency is operating at the frontiers of science." Thus, the court concluded that "[w]hile CBD would have weighed the facts differently, the Court is persuaded that FWS carefully considered all of the available scientific information before it, and its reasoned judgment is entitled to deference."
Notably, the court also rejected the claim, advanced by a host of other plaintiffs, that the polar bear should not have been listed at all. Among other things, opponents of the listing decision argued that the science of climate change is too uncertain, and that the Service (1) failed to show that the polar bear is sufficiently likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future, (2) failed to rely on the best available science, (3) failed to take into account foreign conservation efforts, and (3) failed to follow proper rulemaking procedures.
Although the court limited its deference to the Service’s interpretation of "endangered species" as applied to the polar bear, and not as a regulatory interpretation that may apply in any listing decision, this aspect of the opinion is significant because the Service is likely to apply the same "on the brink of extinction" standard in other listing decisions, which could result in fewer species qualifying for full protection under the ESA.
While the court’s ruling disposes of several cross-motions for summary judgment, it has yet to reach a related challenge to the special 4(d) Rule that the Service issued after listing the polar bear as threatened. See Polar Bear Endangered Species Act Listing and 4(d) Rule Litigation, No. 1:08-mc-00764-EGS (D.D.C. filed Dec. 4, 2008). As previously reported here, environmentalists had hoped that listing the polar bear as threatened due to the impacts of climate change would force the federal government to use its considerable regulatory authority under the ESA to impose strict limits on emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). But a controversial rule issued by the Department of the Interior under section 4(d) of the ESA placed strict geographic limits on the authority of federal agencies to require projects in Alaska to curb or mitigate their GHG emissions. As previously reported here, much to the dismay of environmentalists, the Department of the Interior under the Obama Administration chose not to overturn the polar bear rule. Instead, the Obama Administration has called for new legislation to address GHG emissions, and EPA may assert its authority under the Clean Air Act to regulate GHGs.