(CN) – A wildlife advocacy organization has settled a dispute with the Trump administration to set aside vast stretches of Arctic sea ice-flecked Alaska coastline for the protection of two imperiled ice seal species.
The Center for Biological Diversity announced an agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service that will require the agency to issue a critical habitat rule for bearded and ringed seals, both of which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
“Ice seals’ homes are rapidly melting away, so it’s good to see the Trump administration pledge to protect their habitat,” said Emily Jeffers, a staff attorney with the center. “But it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to force officials to follow the law.”
Both species of ice seals are experiencing population decline due to the accelerated loss of sea ice, which is melting rapidly due to spiking global temperatures associated with climate change.
The animals are also sensitive to oil spills.
Various oil and gas industry operatives attempted legal challenges to the critical habitat designations but ultimately lost their cases in federal courts over the past year, paving the way for the designation.
Despite those court defeats, the Trump administration has delayed placing the critical habitat designation on the coastal areas, prompting the center to file a lawsuit in June.
The settlement between the center and the federal government requires the designation no later than September 2020. While the designation will likely spell the end of oil and gas extraction in the protected areas, Native Alaskans will be permitted to continue to hunt ice seals as they have for generations.
“Ringed and bearded seals need our help to survive an Arctic that’s heating up at twice the global rate,” Jeffers said. “They need habitat protections now, and they need us to quickly address climate change.”
Bearded seals are characterized by their distinctive whiskers, giving them an appearance of sporting a shaggy mustache. When the whiskers dry, they curl elegantly like a handlebar mustache.
They thrive in the Arctic regions of Alaska, Canada and Russia with a few isolated populations in the northern reaches of Scandinavia.
The National Marine Fisheries Service first considered listing the animal in 2008 and agreed to list it as endangered in 2012.
“They are dependent on the sea ice for key portions of their life cycle,” said Julie Speegle, public affairs officer with the National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Regional Office. “That’s where they birth their pups, or nurse them and rear them.”
The recession of sea ice also makes it difficult for the bearded seals to forage for food in some of the shallow pockets of the Bering Sea near the coast.
Ringed seals are characterized by dark spots surrounded by light grey rings. It is the most wide-ranging ice seal in the Northern Hemisphere, found anywhere from Greenland, Norway, Alaska, Russia and Japan.
Ringed seals are vital prey for polar bears and killer whales. Indigenous Arctic peoples also consider the ringed seals as one of the primary staples of their diet.
The center and other environmental organizations argue that in order to protect critical habitat for the two ice seal species, the federal government must use its power to curtail oil and gas and development nationwide while significantly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.
But specific to the Arctic regions of Alaska, near Point Barrow and alongside the Beaufort Sea, the government must ensure any oil and gas development or seismic surveys be conducted in a manner consistent with protecting vital habitat for the ice seals.
Animals with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to recover as species without it, according to the center.