Bearded Seals Aren’t ‘Threatened,’ Alaska Says

     (CN) – Alaska revenue will suffer if the United States designates two species of bearded, Arctic seals as threatened, the state’s attorney general claims in Federal Court.
     Bearded seals are the largest of the northern, ice seals, according to the complaint in Fairbanks.
     Though Alaska says “bearded seal populations are currently healthy and numerous,” the National Marine Fisheries Service published a Final Rule on Dec. 28, 2012, that designated two distinct populations segments, or DPS, of the species and listing both as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
     Alaska takes issue with both the designation and the listing.
     “While the service asserts in the Final Rule that there are two subspecies of bearded seal, i.e., Erignathus barbatus nauticus and Erignathus barbatus barbatus, the geographic distributions of these designated subspecies are not separated by any conspicuous gaps and the validity of the subspecies designation has been questioned in the scientific literature,” the complaint states. “Generally, Erignathus barbatus nauticus inhabits the Pacific portion of the bearded seal range, while Erignathus barbatus barbatus inhabits the Atlantic portion.”
     Regulators identified two segments of the Erignathus barbatus nauticus subspecies for the final rule: the Sea of Okhotsk population segment and the “Beringia” segment consisting of the remaining Erignathus barbatus nauticus population, according to the complaint.
     Alaska says the designation ignores information it provided, “showing that the service’s projected decline of bearded seal habitat was not supported by scientific data.” The state also allegedly presented “data showing that the proposed DPSs were abundant throughout their respective historic ranges.
     “As provided in the Final Rule, the Beringia DPS is estimated to number approximately 125,000 individuals,” according to the complaint. “The Okhotsk DPS is estimated to number approximately 95,000 individuals. The Erignathus barbatus barbatus population is estimated to number approximately 188,000 individuals.
     “No data exists to indicate that any bearded seal population is currently experiencing a decline.”
     Alaska says the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Commerce exceeded their authority, usurped the state’s power to manage its own resources, and put untold state revenue at risk.
     The state has sovereign interests in its wildlife resources, and its management of those resources extends to coastal areas, including areas occupied by populations of the bearded seal, according to the complaint.
     Listing the segments as threatened will harm numerous projects and the welfare of Alaska citizens, the state claims.
     “The Final Rule will have a significant impact on Alaska’s citizens by imposing additional regulations on and deterring activities such as fishing, oil and gas exploration and development, transportation, and tourism within and offshore of Alaska,” the complaint states. “Many Alaskans rely on these activities for employment, and the State and its municipalities rely on tax and royalty revenues from these activities and related commerce to provide services for their citizens.”
     Despite federal requirements, the government agencies never published the relationship of their data to the designation, Alaska says.
     “The service’s rationale for listing the two DPSs of the bearded seal as threatened was based entirely on projected sea ice declines 100 years into the future,” the complaint states. “The service did not list the Erignathus barbatus barbatus subspecies as threatened after it found sufficient sea ice habitat would likely remain by the end of the century.” (Italics in original.)
     Alaska claims that the NMFS admittedly departed from using certain models, because it cannot reasonably project beyond a certain, future period for other species such as the ribbon seal and polar bears.
     The current action comes on the heels of a similar complaint filed last month in the same court by the 15-member trade association, Alaska Oil and Gas Association, over the same alleged faulty listing.
     The May complaint alleged the listing failed to meet one or more of the five factors warranting it, that bearded seal populations are “reliably abundant and widespread” with “no evidence of a decline,” and that there is “no scientific data” to project otherwise, and rationally, into the year 2100.
     Alaska wants a federal judge to vacate the final rule and comply with the Endangered Species Act.
     The state is represented by Assistant Attorneys General Bradley Meyen and Andrew Naylor, along with Murray Feldman with the firm Holland & Hart in Boise, Idaho.

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