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Sunday, June 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Lawsuit Forces Proposed Habitat for Turtles

WASHINGTON (CN) - In response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), Oceana, and Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed 739 shoreline miles of critical nesting habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles in six southeast states.

The turtles originally were listed as threatened worldwide in 1978, but no critical habitat was designated at that time. Jurisdiction for the turtles is held jointly by the USFWS and the National Marine Fisheries Service, because the turtles use both land and sea. The agencies received a 2007 petition to list the North Pacific and the Western North Atlantic populations as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, and the NMFS published a notice that the listings "may be warranted," the proposal noted.

The CBD, TIRN and Oceana sued the federal agencies in 2009 to compel the completion of the 12-month findings. To comply with a settlement agreement, the agencies published a final rule in 2011 that revised the single worldwide listing to nine distinct population segments (DPSs) listed as either endangered or threatened. The agencies maintained that critical habitat was "not determinable" at that time due to lack of information. The environmental groups sued the agencies again in January 2013 for failure to designate critical habitat, according to the proposal.

Critical habitat can only be designated in areas under U.S. jurisdiction, and since loggerhead nesting only occurs in the U.S. for the Northwest Atlantic Ocean DPS, the current action is only proposed for that population. The NMFS is reviewing marine environment as potential critical habitat for the turtles and "may propose to designate such areas in a separate rulemaking," the action noted.

The proposed critical habitat in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi accounts for 84 percent of the documented nesting sites within those states. Certain Department of Defense installations are exempted, because they already have Integrated Natural Resources Management Plans for the conservation of the turtles, according to the proposal. Certain other areas are being considered for exclusion because they have habitat conservation plans in place.

"Primary threats to the turtles include artificial lighting, beach erosion (including as a result of natural disasters such as hurricanes) and climate change. In the southeastern U.S., nest protection efforts and beach habitat protection are underway for loggerhead nesting areas, and progress has been made in reducing mortality rates. Many coastal counties and communities have developed lighting ordinances to reduce loggerhead sea turtle hatchling disorientation," the USFWS noted in a press release.

"This is the first permanent habitat protection that has been proposed for sea turtles along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, outside of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Any new beachside hotels, homes or commercial construction built on protected beaches that require federal permits would need to be reviewed to prevent harm to nesting areas," the TIRN noted in a statement.

"Critical habitat designation does not impose restrictions on non-federal lands unless federal funds, permits or activities are involved," the USFWS said. "Designating critical habitat on federal or non-federal lands informs landowners and the public of the specific areas that are important to the conservation of the species. Identifying this habitat also helps focus the conservation efforts of other conservation partners, such as state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals."

Comments and information are due by May 24.

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