Ninth Circuit Cans Trump Gut of Pacific Walrus Protections

The Biden administration must take a fresh look at whether the marine mammal deserves a spot on the Endangered Species list.

FILE – In this Sept. 2013 photo provided by the United States Geological Survey, Pacific walruses gather to rest on the shores of the Chukchi Sea near the coastal village of Point Lay, Alaska. (Ryan Kingsbery/United States Geological Survey via AP, file)

(CN) — A Ninth Circuit panel on Thursday blasted the Trump administration’s decision to remove the Pacific walrus from the Endangered Species Act list in 2017. 

The three-judge panel found U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided an inadequate rationale for delisting the animal after having found the species to be in need of such protections in 2011. 

“The essential flaw in the 2017 decision is its failure to offer more than a cursory explanation of why the findings underlying its 2011 decision no longer apply,” U.S. Circuit Judge Andrew Hurwitz, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote for the unanimous majority

Fish and Wildlife initially found the alarming loss of sea ice in the Arctic regions where the walrus flourishes could contribute to a decline in the species’ numbers. However, the agency also acknowledged Pacific walrus were adapting to the dynamic environment in the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea in the northern reaches of the Pacific. 

As such, it found that a listing of the walrus was warranted but precluded, meaning that protections were justified but the scarce resources of the agency should be dedicated to more immediately imperiled species. This finding required Fish and Wildlife to periodically review the listing to ascertain whether updates were warranted. 

In 2017, The Trump administration used the periodic review to determine the species no longer needed any protection. Fish and Wildlife decided that while sea-ice loss was likely, it could not predict the magnitude of impact on walrus. 

“We are unable to reliably predict the magnitude of the effect and the behavioral response of the Pacific walrus to this change, and we therefore do not have reliable information showing that the magnitude of this change could be sufficient to put the subspecies in danger of extinction now or in the foreseeable future,” the agency said in a 3-page finding published in the Federal Register. 

Hurwitz said this terse finding and the lack of new scientific evidence was insufficient to overturn the agency’s previous finding. 

“The 2017 decision is a spartan document, simply containing a general summary of the threats facing the Pacific walrus and the agency’s new uncertainty on the imminence and seriousness of those threats,” Hurwitz wrote. 

Wildlife advocates celebrated the ruling Thursday. 

“This ruling is big news that gives the Pacific walrus a fighting chance,” said Emily Jeffers, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Arctic ice is disappearing at a record rate, and walruses are suffering catastrophic habitat loss. This decision means that the Fish and Wildlife Service will have to go back and examine the science on sea-ice loss and walrus survival, and we’re confident they’ll give these creatures the protections they desperately need.”

Jeffers and her group say sea-ice extent has only diminished since 2008, necessitating further protections for the walrus. One of the worries about the diminution of sea ice is that walruses will be forced to congregate on land instead, making them more susceptible to predation while having to expend more energy to secure prey. 

Advocates want the federal government to designate the area as critical habitat, which would impede the oil and gas exploration and extraction in the coastal areas of northern Alaska. 

Critics say such a measure is unnecessary to protect the species and will only hamper economic activity in the region. 

A Fish and Wildlife spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comment by press time.

Trump appointees U.S. Circuit Judge Daniel Bress and U.S. District Judge Clifton Corker, sitting by designation from the Eastern District of Tennessee, rounded out the panel.

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