Greens Compel Turtle|Habitat Designation

     WASHINGTON (CN) – In response to a lawsuit jointly filed in January by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Oceana, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service have proposed critical habitat designations for one distinct population segment (DPS) of loggerhead sea turtles, according to a recent NMFS proposed rule.
     Loggerhead sea turtles were listed as a threatened species worldwide in 1978 under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but no critical habitat was designated at that time. The USFWS and the NMFS have agreed to work together through a “joint memorandum of understanding” to protect the loggerheads because the turtles use multiple habitats that range from “terrestrial, inshore/estuarine, nearshore” to the open ocean marine environment, the action noted.
     The three conservation groups petitioned the “marine” and “terrestrial” agencies in 2007 to reclassify the turtles as endangered and designate critical habitat. This prompted a formal review by scientific experts under the requirements of the ESA, the NOAA said in its press release.
     In 2011, the agencies jointly published a final rule that revised the turtle’s listing from a single worldwide threatened species to nine DPSs, four of which maintain the threatened listing, with the other five now listed as endangered. Only two of the DPSs qualify for critical habitat designation because they are the only ones within U.S. jurisdiction. One is in the northwest Atlantic and the other is in the north Pacific, according to the action.
     The NMFS action only proposed critical habitat for the “threatened” Atlantic Ocean/Gulf of Mexico DPS, maintaining that no critical habitat was identified within the jurisdiction of the U.S. for the “endangered” North Pacific Ocean DPS. The areas “around Hawaii and along the U.S. west coast represent a very small percentage of suitable loggerhead habitat and do not meet the definition of critical habitat,” the agency said.
     “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed critical habitat protection for loggerheads on land in March, covering 739 square miles of nesting beaches – 84 percent of all known nesting areas – along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Identifying marine habitat can be more challenging, however, as many important conditions, such as water temperature and prey availability, change over time. Protected habitat areas for these turtles must be finalized by July 1, 2014, according to the terms of the earlier settlement agreement,” the CBD noted in its statement.
     The marine habitat proposed by the NMFS is near the nesting beaches proposed earlier by the USFWS for critical habitat designation. The NMFS and the USFWS “currently plan to issue a combined final rule” for the critical habitat designation, according the recent action.
     The NMFS’ proposed marine habitat “includes some nearshore reproductive habitat (areas directly off of nesting/hatching beaches from North Carolina through Mississippi), winter habitat (North Carolina), breeding habitat (Florida), and constricted migratory corridors (North Carolina and Florida),” according to the agency’s statement.
     The CBD acknowledged that the NMFS’ proposed designation is “a step forward for turtle conservation,” but also decried its failure to protect the turtles as they range as far north as Massachusetts, and its failure to include both the east and west coasts of the Gulf of Mexico where the turtles are known to feed, according to the group’s statement.
     The NMFS wants comments and information on its proposed critical habitat designation by Sept. 16.
     The USFWS has reopened the comment period for its March proposed habitat designation and announced two public informational meetings followed by hearings to be held in North Carolina. Comments on that proposed rule also are due by Sept. 16.

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