Whale Defenders Lose Navy Training Challenge

     BRUNSWICK, Ga. (CN) - The U.S. Navy can build an undersea warfare training range despite claims that the range would hurt endangered whales, a federal judge ruled.
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     Defenders of Wildlife and 11 other environmental groups challenged the Navy's decision to install an undersea warfare training range off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla. Nearby lie the federally designated critical habitat and the only known calving grounds of the highly endangered North Atlantic right whale.
     The Navy says it needs the area to train in a shallow water environment at a suitable location for Atlantic Fleet anti-submarine warfare capable units. Range training would provide real-time feedback to the units engaged in those training activities, the Navy says.
     Such training has occurred for more than 60 years, and the Navy says it has been planning the undersea warfare training range to that end for more than 10 years.
     Construction of the training range would involve the placement of undersea cables and transducer nodes in a 500-square-nautical-mile area of the ocean. A single trunk cable would connect this instrumental area to the shore.
     Though construction has not yet started, the Navy predicts project completion in 2014.
     The Navy claims that the range will be built in a relatively small portion of its existing Jacksonville operating area and argues that the training range is "not expected to cause any significant change to training already occurring in the area."
     But the environmental groups say that the Navy's outline of the possible action is inaccurate. They say that the training range intends to concentrate intensive warfare exercises from the vast Jacksonville operating area, which could be tens of thousands of square miles, into the training range instrumental area.
     There is no dispute, however, that the training range sits beside the habitat for the North Atlantic right whale, "the world's most critically endangered large whale species and one of the world's most endangered mammals," according to the court.
     Despite protection from commercial whaling since 1935, the remaining population has yet to fully recover. Advocates say the best current estimate of the whale population is only 313.
     "Because of the species' low reproduction level and small population size, even low levels of human-caused mortality can pose a significant obstacle for the North Atlantic right whale recovery," they claim.
     Their complaint alleges that the Navy failed to adequately study how the proposed training range will affect the environment of right whales and other protected species.
     The Navy counters that it conducted all analysis required by federal law. Installation also would not occur during the whale calving season.
     Finding these defenses adequate, the court agreed granted summary judgment for the government on Thursday.
     "As is made clear from the record, the Navy analyzed marine mammal densities and bottom habitat surveys in forming the FEIS," Chief U.S. District Judge Lisa Wood wrote, abbreviating final environmental impact statement. "That the Navy plans to conduct further thorough studies in the future in no way vitiates this prior analysis."
     The court also found that the government took a hard look at whether the whalees, turtles and manatees would be harmed from ship strikes, debris entanglement and sonar operations.