Oil and natural gas operators working in Alaska's Chukchi Sea area would have a negligible effect on polar bears and walruses, according to a federal appeals court, which on Tuesday backed rules issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

The three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said the FWS correctly issued rules to provide legal protection for energy operators if small numbers of polar bears or Pacific walruses were incidentally harmed (Center for Biological Diversity, et al v. Kenneth L. Salazar, et al; No. 3:07-cf-00141-RRB). The original lawsuit was filed in July 2008, before Ken Salazar was appointed Secretary of the Interior, and there are related cases linked to the lawsuit.

The Center for Biological Diversity in July 2008 took the FWS to court over the habitat rules by claiming that both individual animals and entire populations had to be analyzed for protection. The appeals court concluded that the FWS had done sufficient separate analyses.

The appeals court concluded that the FWS had determined that "relatively small numbers" of bears and walruses would be "taken" in relation to the size of the animals' population. The FWS separately had determined that the anticipated take would have a "negligible impact" on the annual rate of survival of the bears and walruses.

The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits "taking" of marine mammals; "taking" is defined to include harassment or annoyance "that has the potential to injure or that could disrupt behavior patterns" that include migration, nursing, breeding and feeding.

In its analysis the FWS determined that oil and gas operator activity onshore would not be near animal dens or walrus haulouts. In addition, the FWS found that offshore drilling would occur during the open water season, which would not be near pack ice used by the arctic animals.

The appeals court ruling "reaffirmed the appropriateness of our conservation measures," said FWS spokesman Bruce Woods.

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