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Largest Proposed Critical Habitat Planned for Seals

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed 350,000 square miles of critical habitat for Arctic ringed seals in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Critical habitat is comprised of geographic areas occupied by a species at the time it is listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which contain the features essential for the conservation of the species, according to the proposed rule published Wednesday.

"Our scientists identified the habitat features that are essential for sustaining Arctic ringed seals, a species that is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future due to climate change," the NMFS' Alaska regional administrator Dr. James Balsiger was quoted as saying in the agency's statement.

The proposed designation is aimed at protecting the ice-covered waters of the Arctic Basin off Alaska's coast for the seals. "Yes it is 350,000 square miles and the largest proposed," Julie Speegle, the NMFS' media contact in the Alaska Region confirmed in an email communication.

The seals, which are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, were listed as a threatened species under the ESA in Dec. 2012. The listing resulted from a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in 2009.

"We're thrilled that the ringed seals are getting the habitat protections they so desperately need as their sea-ice home melts beneath them," Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the CBD was quoted as saying in the group's response to the habitat proposal. "Now the Obama administration needs to make these protections count, by reducing the greenhouse gas pollution that's rapidly making the Arctic uninhabitable for ringed seals and other ice-dependent animals."

The so-called ice seals rarely come ashore and live part of the year in snow-caves on top of the ice. They are threatened "by late ice formation in the fall, rain-on-snow events in the late winter, earlier break-up of spring ice, as well as decreasing snow depths, which are projected to be too shallow for snow cave formation by the end of the century," according to the action.

The ringed seal is the smallest of the Arctic seals, averaging just under five feet in length, and weighing around 150 pounds. The average life span is 15 to 28 years. They are a significant prey animal for polar bears, another species heavily impacted by the decreasing sea ice. Seal pups are more vulnerable to bear attacks in snow caves that have thin snow cover, and a four-fold increase in pup predation was noted in a recent year when the average snow cover decreased by half from the preceding year, according to the action.

A finalized critical habitat designation would require federal agencies to consult with the NMFS on actions they authorize, fund or carry out to prevent those activities from destroying or damaging the habitat. "Designation of critical habitat would not affect subsistence harvest of ringed seals by Alaska Natives," according to the agency's statement.

Comments are due by March 3, 2015. The dates and times for four public meetings to be held in Alaska will be published at a later time.

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