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Agency Wants to End Failed Sea Otter Program

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a step closer to ending the southern sea otter translocation program in California with the publication of its final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) on the program in a recent proposed rule.

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The agency wants to end the program because it has not met its objective of establishing an independent population of sea otters at San Nicolas Island to safeguard the species in the event of a natural or human-caused event, such as an oil spill, that could devastate the declining "keystone species," according to the agency's statement.

Unlike sea mammals with insulating fat layers to protect them against the cold ocean water, sea otters have "the densest fur of any mammal" for heat regulation, but they are vulnerable to contamination by oily substances that can destroy the insulating properties of the fur, the agency noted.

Hunted to near extinction for their pelts, southern sea otters now survive only off the Big Sur coast in California and were listed as endangered in 1977, under the Endangered Species Act. Those ESA protections would continue despite the termination of the translocation program, the agency said.

Not only did the San Nicolas Island independent population fail, the "no-otter" management zone of the translocation program was in conflict with the natural range expansion of the mainland population, and the agency proposed to end to the program in its 2005 draft SEIS, and allow the species to expand its range without human "assistance or interference."

The final SEIS evaluated six alternatives, including no action, reimplementation of the program as originally defined in 1987, reimplementation with changes to the management zone, or three options for ending the program. The agency's "preferred alternative" is to end the program and allow natural range expansion, without short-term removal of otters from the management zone or translocation zone, as stipulated in the other two termination alternatives, the proposed rule states.

The agency's 2005 draft SEIS was revised in 2011. Over 26,000 comments on the draft SEIS were received and considered in the formulation of the final SEIS, according to the proposed rule.

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