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Alaska ice seals win critical habitat protection

The rules acknowledge that the seals are threatened by Arctic oil and gas drilling and the oil spills, noise pollution and other harmful impacts caused by these activities.

(CN) — Alaska ice seals won critical federal habitat protections Thursday, when the National Marine Fisheries Service announced two final rules to protect critical habitats for bearded seals and ringed seals, two types of Arctic ice seals.

The Center for Biological Diversity claimed a legal victory in a statement.

“This is fantastic news for these ice-dependent seals,” said Emily Jeffers, an attorney with the Center’s Oceans program.

“We can’t save them without protecting the places they live. But as Arctic sea ice continues to disappear, we need bolder action. Bearded and ringed seals could go extinct if we don’t dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and phase out Arctic oil and gas drilling,” she added.

The critical habitat designation protects large parts of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas as areas essential for the species’ survival and recovery. It excludes the northern part of the Beaufort Sea from the designation in the interest of national security.

Both rules affirm the threat climate change poses to the seals’ survival, stating that the loss of sea ice associated with climate change is the “principal threat” to the species’ continued existence. The rules also acknowledge that the seals are threatened by Arctic oil and gas drilling and the oil spills, noise pollution and other harmful impacts caused by these activities.

Alaska strongly disagrees with the designations of critical habitat, according to strongly worded a statement by Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game. The state maintains that these areas are overly large by Endangered Species Act standards and provide little to no benefit for the species they are intended to conserve.

“Listing these robust and healthy seal populations was unjustified,” Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, said. “It’s disappointing to think that NMFS interprets the ESA to mean that these abundant populations are currently threatened with extinction when the potential threats to habitat may be decades in the future. We have recommended that the populations continue to be monitored for possible declines, leaving open the option of listing in the future, if justified."

The environmental group first petitioned to protect both species in 2008, and the Obama administration listed them in 2012. Federal courts rejected separate oil industry challenges to protections for bearded seals and ringed seals.

Plants and animals with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be moving toward recovery than species without it, a Center study found.

Bearded seals, known for their mustachioed appearance and elaborate courtship songs, give birth and nurse their pups on pack ice. The rapid loss of that ice jeopardizes their ability to rear their young and is lowering the abundance of food on their shallow foraging grounds in the Bering Sea.

Ringed seals, who are covered in dark spots surrounded by light gray rings, give birth in snow caves built on top of sea ice. Global warming is reducing the amount of snowpack there, causing caves to collapse and leaving pups vulnerable to death by freezing or from predators.

While a critical habitat designation will not affect subsistence activities by Alaska Native communities and development activities are not prohibited, designation does add a layer of regulatory review that has the potential to increase costs, time and uncertainty for commercial projects. State representatives say that this amounts to unfairly singling Alaska out and treating the 49th state differently than others.

“Beyond the faulty listing, the designation of ‘critical habitat’ or a species that are not currently in danger of extinction is unnecessary and unjustified.” Vincent-Lang said. “It’s also difficult to not conclude that Alaska is being singled out for vast areas of critical habitat, since 5 of the 6 largest designations in the U.S. are off the coast of Alaska,” he cited as a reason for a biased and unfair process.

According to the statement, each designation consists of several hundred thousands of square miles of marginal ocean habitat extending well beyond the habitat that is biologically essential to the seals. Because of this, Vincent-Lang said the state will review the action and consider its options, including legally challenging the final action.


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