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Conservationists Ask Feds to Protect Rare Freshwater Seals

A conservation group urged the federal government Thursday to protect an inhabitant of the eighth-largest lake in the United States — a rare colony of about 400 freshwater seals.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Tucked into southwest Alaska at the base of the Aleutian Peninsula, Iliamna Lake boasts a legendary salmon run, a booming fish population and, if the legends are true, an elusive lake monster.

But on Thursday, a conservation group urged the federal government to protect another inhabitant of the eighth-largest lake in the United States — a rare colony of about 400 freshwater seals.

In a petition filed with the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Center for Biological Diversity said the Iliamna Lake seals should be listed as threatened or endangered because they are facing existential threats from climate change and the proposed Pebble Mine, a massive open-pit copper mine that would sit just north of the lake.

"The Iliamna Lake seal is in danger of extinction, or likely to become so within the foreseeable future, due to its inherent vulnerability as a small, isolated population, and ongoing, high-magnitude threats including climate change and the Pebble Mine," the 77-page petition states.

It is unclear how long the seals have called Alaska's largest body of freshwater home, but the colony is one of only two known groups of North Pacific harbor seals that live in freshwater and one of just five freshwater seal colonies anywhere in the northern hemisphere, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The Center for Biological Diversity says the proposed Pebble Mine and the infrastructure used to support it could fill the lake water with contaminants harmful to both the seals themselves and the prey on which they subsist.

The group also says boats would clog up the surface of the lake if the mine is built, increasing the likelihood of seals being killed in collisions and bringing along a cacophony of noise that could injure the seals or change their behavior.

Separate from the mine, the group's petition argues climate change has already altered the seals' habitat, a trend that will only get worse in the coming years.

"Without Endangered Species Act protection, we risk allowing these seals to fall victim to the world's wildlife extinction crisis," Center for Biological Diversity scientist Kristin Carden said in a statement. "We need to do everything we can to ensure that doesn't happen."

Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for NOAA, said the agency is reviewing the group's petition. The agency will now have 90 days to publish its determination of whether the request is warranted.

If it is, NOAA will have 12 months to decide whether to list the species as endangered or threatened.

In 2016, the agency decided not to designate the seals as endangered or threatened, finding they did not qualify as a species under the Endangered Species Act.

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