Feds Accused of Dragging Feet on Penguin Protections

This 2010 photo shows emperor penguin chicks at Antarctica’s Halley Bay. (Peter Fretwell/British Antarctic Survey via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Accusing the Trump administration of violating the Endangered Species Act, environmentalists claim in court that the emperor penguin could be extinct within a century if the government doesn’t act quickly to protect it.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Washington, D.C., federal court accusing federal agencies of delaying action on a petition to list the penguins as threatened or endangered, even as the bird fights a losing battle for survival.

“These little critters are just absolutely adored and the idea that they may not exist for our grandchildren is very disheartening,” the center’s in-house attorney Sarah Uhlemann said in an interview.

The bird is in peril as global warming causes not only a loss in sea ice, but also food shortages. The emperor penguin’s main source of nutrition, krill, is disappearing due to industrial fishing and ocean acidification.

In light of these increasing threats, the lawsuit calls for immediate action, claiming the Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are more than six years late in responding to a 12-month deadline to issue a decision on the center’s request to place the bird on the endangered species list.

The Center for Biological Diversity has also faulted the Trump administration for preventing FWS from providing proper protection to endangered species.

In a statement in April, Noah Greenwald, the center’s endangered species director, said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt “and the Trump administration’s highest priorities are corporate profits.”

“There is not going to be a pickup in pace until we get an administration that really cares about wildlife,” Greenwald added in an interview Wednesday.

While the Obama administration developed a plan to work through a backlog of more than 500 Endangered Species Act petitions, Greenwald said the Trump administration has protected only 18 species off that list.

That pace makes the administration the slowest to protect species since President Ronald Reagan, Greenwald said, noting of those 18 decisions, many were ordered by the courts.

“[Emperor penguins] are just one of the many species that are waiting for protection and it’s not what the Endangered Species Act envisioned. It’s supposed to be a quick process that ensures the species get the protection they need before they decline any further or go extinct,” Greenwald said.

The fight to protect the emperor penguin goes back to 2006, when the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the government to issue endangered protection to 12 penguin species.

Responding in 2008, the government stated that “there was insufficient evidence to indicate climate change was affecting the emperor penguin’s habitat through change in temperature or sea-ice extent, or that those effects were likely to threaten the species in the foreseeable future.”

The center disagreed and issued a second petition in 2011 backed by scientific reports demonstrating the emperor penguin is at serious risk, but says it has been stonewalled by FWS ever since.

“Nearly eight years have passed since the Center filed its 2011 petition to list the emperor penguin under the ESA. However, the Service has not issued a 12-month finding on the petition to date. The Service’s 12-month finding is 80 months late,” according to Wednesday’s complaint.

The lawsuit calls for the Interior Department and FWS to take “immediate and bold action” to preserve the “iconic and much-beloved” animal.

Uhlemann said while she hopes the Trump administration would prioritize protection for animals big and small, she recognized the emperor penguin’s celebrity status in the animal kingdom might push the agencies to act. The species was featured in the 2005 documentary “March of the Penguins.”

“There is more public pressure generated and I think it is hard for an administration to ignore that,” she said.

The Interior Department and FWS did not respond immediately Wednesday to requests for comment.

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