Ice-Dependent Arctic Seals Advance Toward Endangered Species Act Protection

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110

Ice-Dependent Arctic Seals Advance Toward Endangered Species Act Protection

Court Settlement Requires Agency to Make Listing Findings for Ringed, Bearded, and Spotted Seals

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - A federal judge on Friday approved a settlement between the Center
for Biological Diversity and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration requiring the agency to decide whether ice-dependent ringed, bearded, and spotted seals
deserve legal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Under the
settlement, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must
make a finding on whether listing is warranted for the spotted seal by
October 15, 2009 and for the ringed and bearded seals by November 1,
2010.

In May 2008 the Center filed a petition to
protect the ice-dependent ringed, bearded, and spotted seals under the
Act due to threats from global warming and increasing oil development
in their habitat. In September 2008, the agency found that the three
seal species may deserve Endangered Species Act protection, but it has
subsequently failed to make a decision on whether the species warrant
legal protection within the one-year deadline provided by the statute.

The
ice seal settlement comes as scientists announce that Arctic summer sea
ice has reached its third lowest level ever. "Global warming is
wreaking havoc on the Arctic ecosystem," said Rebecca Noblin, an
attorney with the Center in Anchorage. "An entire ecosystem is rapidly
melting away, and we risk losing not only the ice seals but the polar
bear and walrus as well if we do not take immediate action to address
global warming."

Ringed, bearded, and spotted seals
use the sea ice in slightly different ways, but each depends on the sea
ice for giving birth, rearing pups, and resting. Ringed seals, which
are the primary prey of polar bears, excavate snow caves on sea ice to
provide hidden, insulated shelters for themselves and their pups. The
early breakup of sea ice destroys these snow sanctuaries, resulting in
increased deaths of pups. Bearded seals, which are distinctive for
their mustachioed appearance and their elaborate courtship songs, give
birth and rear their pups on drifting pack ice over shallow waters,
where their bottom-dwelling prey is abundant. The early retreat of the
sea ice off the food-rich shallow shelves decreases food availability
for these seals. Spotted seals, whose longer noses give them a dog-like
appearance, rely on the edge of the sea ice away from predators as safe
habitat for giving birth and as a nursery for their pups. Loss of sea
ice and early sea-ice breakup threaten these seals' ability to
successfully rear their young.

In addition to loss
of sea ice from global warming, ice seals face threats from increased
oil and gas development in their habitat. Oil and gas development
brings a heightened risk of oil spills and rising levels of noise
pollution and other kinds of human disturbance. The Obama
administration is currently in the process of deciding whether to go
forward with a Bush-era plan to expand offshore oil and gas development
in the United States, including in the Arctic ice seal habitat.

"With
rapid action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, combined with a
moratorium on new oil and gas development in the Arctic, we can still
save the ice seals and other Arctic wildlife," Noblin said. "If the ice
seals are to survive, we need to protect their habitat, rather than
converting it into a polluted industrial zone."

Listing
of the seals would not affect subsistence harvest of these seals by
Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law's prohibitions.

The Center has also filed petitions seeking protection of the polar bear, ribbon seal, and Pacific walrus
from melting sea ice and other effects of global warming. The polar
bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species
Act on May 15, 2008. The Bush administration denied listing of the
ribbon seal in December 2008, a decision the Center is challenging in
court. This month, pursuant to settlement of a previous Center lawsuit,
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that listing of the
Pacific walrus may be warranted. The agency's announcement came as
federal scientists discovered as many as 3,500 Pacific walrus hauled
out on the Arctic coast near Wainwright, victims of reduced sea-ice
habitat from global warming. Under the Pacific walrus settlement
agreement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make a decision
whether listing of the walrus is warranted by September 10, 2010.

"Unfortunately
the Obama administration has been all too willing to perpetuate the
destructive policies of the Bush administration in the Arctic," said
Noblin. "Unless this administration takes immediate and decisive action
to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put a stop to foolhardy offshore
oil and gas development in the Arctic, these ice-dependent species face
a grim future."

For more information on ringed, bearded, and spotted seals and a link to the federal petition, please see:
http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/bearded_ringed_and_spotted seals/index.html.

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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