A seemingly happy polar bear. (Photo: Anita Ritenour/CC BY 2.0)

A federal court has granted polar bears a swath of Alaska that is bigger than California.

The 187,000-square-mile area, much of which is off the North Slope of the state, is meant to protect the bear population, which, in 2008, was declared a “threatened” species because of climate change.

The decision, by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, is also a blow to plaintiffs, which included a coalition of indigenous groups, an oil industry group, and the state of Alaska itself. Those plaintiffs had argued that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s plan to protect the area was an arbitrary overreach.

A lower court had previously ruled in plaintiffs’ favor, but the latest decision, announced last week, means that the area will likely remain protected. It’s also expected to make it harder for oil companies to get federal approvals for offshore drilling in the area. 

Global ice mass, which polar bears need to hunt and breed, has been shrinking, and the worldwide polar bear population is expected to decrease by about a third by 2050 as a result of climate change, environmental groups have said