(CN) – With nary a Pacific walrus in the district, a D.C. federal judge said Alaska is the proper venue for a court battle over the harm they face from oil and gas interests.
Even the National Zoo does not house these walruses, U.S. District Judge John Bates said Friday, adding that Alaska is “where the case could have been filed from the start, where the challenged regulation was initiated and developed, where that regulation will apply, and – not inconsequentially – where Pacific walruses can be found.”
It was nevertheless in the nation’s capital where Alaska Wilderness League and others filed suit after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted the Alaska Oil and Gas Association’s request to some of its members harm, but not kill, Pacific walruses in the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska for up to five years.
Pacific walruses, which can grow to 12 feet long and weigh more than 2 tons, rest on ice floes in the Chukchi Sea to rest, rear their calves, avoid predators and hunt for mollusks.
The contested regulation applies to a 90,000 square-mile area that includes parts of the Outer Continental Shelf, Alaskan state waters, and coastal land around Wainwright and Barrow, Alaska.
In agreeing with the government that the case belongs in Alaska, Judge Bates noted that Fish and Wildlife drafted the contested regulation in its Anchorage office, and that several of the plaintiffs and their lawyers are also residents of Alaska.
Though much of the land at issue is federal, and the Pacific walrus is a federally protected species, Bates said this argument ignores the fact that the issue exclusively affects Alaska, not the nation.
Indeed, oil and gas activities in the Chukchi Sea that affect only Pacific walruses, which are not found anywhere but the waters around Alaska, make the issue extremely local, according to the 17-page opinion.
Though courts generally defer to a plaintiff’s chosen forum of litigation, Bates declined to do so here because the challenged regulation has no impact on Washington, D.C.’s wildlife, environment or people, while the District of Alaska is directly affected by the controversy.
The groups had emphasized that government officials enacted the regulation in D.C., but Bates pointed out that “signing and promulgating are not magic acts that somehow transform a transferable case into an un-transferable one.”
Regardless of where the regulation was signed, the “dearth of evidence” as to why the case should stay in D.C. indicates that it is best heard in Alaska, which will most acutely feel the regulation’s impacts, according to the ruling.
The court also granted the Alaska Oil and Gas Association’s uncontested motion to intervene in the matter.
Eric Paul Johnson and Erik Grafe with Earthjustice of Anchorage represents the plaintiffs. The defendants were represented by Justice Department attorneys David Bernard Glazer in San Francisco and Meredith Flax in Washington, D.C.
Neither party’s counsel returned messages seeking comment by the close of business hours Monday.
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