WASHINGTON (CN) - Despite sea ice reaching the lowest levels in recorded history, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced it will delay listing specific populations of ice-dependent bearded and ringed seals under the Endangered Species Act for 6 months.
The NMFS, which had been expected to make final its proposal to list the two species as threatened, as the result of low sea ice formation caused by global warming, said that there was disagreement over the magnitude and immediacy of the threat to ringed seals in general and the Beringia population of bearded seals in particular.
Most of the disagreement came from the State of Alaska, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and several Tribal governments and Alaska native organizations, the NMFS said.
After the NMFS makes a proposal for listing it can make the listing final, withdraw the proposed rule, or extend making its decision final for no more than six months.
Rebecca Noblin, the Alaska Director at The Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned the agency to list the two species and later went to court to force review of the petition, said that the seals do not have six months to spare. "There's no question that rapid Arctic warming poses a grave threat to these seals," Noblin said.
"The longer we wait to tackle the greenhouse gases that are destroying ringed and bearded seals' Arctic home, the harder it's going to be to save these remarkable animals. Ringed and bearded seals need the protections of the Endangered Species Act yesterday," said Noblin.
Prior to proposing that the species should be listed, the NMFS conducted a 12 month review of the status of each species.
In its review, the agency relied on climate projections from the Fourth Assessment Report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which predict that by 2050, November sea ice formation in areas inhabited by both species will be 50 percent lower than current conditions.
The agency's models predict wide geographic disparity, with year round ice free zones in parts of the Arctic, and much diminished ice pack lasting for only a few months, closer to land masses.
The state of Alaska rejects the idea that either seal species is endangered, and said in response to the proposed listing that it ignored evidence that they had survived previous warming periods where snow drift on ice disappeared.
The state also rejected the 100 year time line used in the agency's models to predict the future state of the seals saying that there was too much uncertainty in such long term forecasting to make policy decisions.
Both species use snow drifts on sea ice to create birthing and whelping dens for pups and the predicted decline in ice formation is accompanied by a decline in average snow fall for the rest of the century, reaching the point around 2050 when ringed seals will no longer be able to build dens in their current range, according to the agency's model.
The NMFS said it would reopen the public comment period on the proposed listings but did not specify when it would do so. The agency must reach a final determination or withdraw the proposal by June 10, 2012.