Endangered, with climate change to blame

Climate projections are reason enough for Endangered Species Act protection, court rules.


A court decision on Oct. 24 was a win for species threatened by climate change. The case centered on National Marine Fisheries Service findings that estimate a Pacific bearded seal subspecies will lose so much sea ice habitat, they will become endangered by 2095.

In 2012, the seals had been federally listed as threatened based on climate change predictions, but a lawsuit brought by oil and gas companies, indigenous tribes and the state of Alaska challenged the classification. The courts at the time ruled in the dissenters’ favor, saying that the listing was “arbitrary and capricious.” The latest ruling in the appeals court overturns those findings, reinstating protection.

The case echoes a number of Endangered Species Act tussles over the impacts of climate change on sensitive species. In September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to list the temperature-sensitive American pika for a second time, claiming it could adapt to new regions as the climate changes. Since April, the agency has been reconsidering listing wolverines in the mountainous West. Scientists say that over the next three decades, a shrinking snowpack will expose wolverine kits to predators, affecting their ability to store food and their overall reproduction rates, among other issues.

Jarkko Järvinen/Flickr user

Despite the urgency of climate change, the ESA bureaucracy moves slowly. Even if the pika and wolverines were found to merit protection, they would join the backlog of other candidates, some of which have languished for decades before actually receiving critical habitat and other protections. The most recent court decision sets a unique precedent for the protecting of threatened and endangered species based on climate projections, and could open the door for more species to be listed.

Anna V. Smith is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets

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