U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline, in a written order dated Thursday, said the designation was too extensive and presented "a disconnect between the twin goals of protecting a cherished resource and allowing for growth and much needed economic development." He sent the matter back to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to correct "substantive and procedural deficiencies."
The federal government declared the polar bear threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, citing melting sea ice. The move made the polar bear the first species to be designated as threatened under the act because of global warming.
A designation of critical habitat was required as part of a recovery plan, and more than 187,000 square miles in and near the Beaufort and Chukchi seas—an area larger than California—was set aside.
A coalition of Alaska Native groups, oil and gas interests and the state of Alaska sued, calling the designation an overreach.
Beistline, in his order, said that Fish and Wildlife Service's decision didn't comply with a requirement under the law that critical habitat include physical or biological features essential to the conservation of the species. The agency didn't show that two of the land units had all the required features, the judge said.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell hailed the decision.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service's attempt to classify massive sections of resource-rich North Slope lands as critical habitat is the latest in a long string of examples of the federal government encroaching on our state's rights," he said in a statement. "I am pleased the State of Alaska was able to fight off this concerted effort to kill jobs and economic development in Alaska."
Bruce Woods, a Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman in Alaska, declined comment, saying the agency had just learned of the decision Friday afternoon and was still reviewing it.
Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty said protecting polar bears "is a priority for us all, but such measures must carefully comply with the requirements of the statute."
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Beistline made the right decision, calling the bear populations "abundant and healthy."
"The only real impact of the designation would have been to make life more difficult for the residents of North Slope communities, and make any kind of economic development more difficult or even impossible," she said in a statement.
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