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Threatened by climate change, emperor penguins win protection from feds

Concern about melting sea ice habitats led to the "threatened" listing.

(CN) — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this week announced protections for the emperor penguin, a flightless bird native to Antarctica, under the Endangered Species Act.

The tallest and heaviest of all penguins, the emperor is considered a threatened species in part due to the effects of climate change on its native sea-ice habitat. Emperor penguins need sea ice to form breeding colonies, gather food and avoid predators. But increasing carbon dioxide emissions which raise global temperatures are reducing the ice these birds need for survival. 

The new listing includes a rule that streamlines Endangered Species Act compliance by giving exceptions to activities permitted by the National Science Foundation, under the Antarctic Conservation Act. 

“This listing reflects the growing extinction crisis and highlights the importance of the ESA and efforts to conserve species before population declines become irreversible,” said Fish and Wildlife director Martha Williams. “Climate change is having a profound impact on species around the world and addressing it is a priority for the Administration. The listing of the emperor penguin serves as an alarm bell but also a call to action.” 

The decision follows a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity as environmentalists have long claimed the feds have dragged their feet on protecting these birds. The center filed a legal petition in 2011 urging Fish and Wildlife to list emperor penguins as endangered, and a 2020 settlement required the service to either propose protections or deem the listing not warranted by July 2021. The service proposed emperor penguins for protection in August 2021 and the rule this week formalizes that decision.

The center said in a statement Tuesday that the rule “is a big win for these beloved, iconic penguins and all of us who want them to thrive,” according to Shaye Wolf, the center’s climate science director. 

“At the same time, this decision is a warning that emperor penguins need urgent climate action if they’re going to survive," Wolf said. "The penguin’s very existence depends on whether our government takes strong action now to cut climate-heating fossil fuels and prevent irreversible damage to life on Earth.”

The center noted extensively documented harms to emperor penguins from climate change. A 2021 study found that without stronger climate action nearly all colonies would be extinct by 2100. The emperor penguin was recently proposed for Specially Protected Species status under the Antarctic Treaty. Colonies at Halley Bay and Cape Crozier suffered catastrophic breeding failures when sea ice broke up before chicks could swim, drowning thousands of chicks. The colony population at Point Géologie, featured in the film “March of the Penguins,” has declined by nearly 50%.

Melting sea ice, ocean acidification and industrial fisheries have also reduced krill populations, which is a key food source for emperor penguins.

“Listing emperor penguins as a threatened species is an important step for raising awareness about the impact of climate change,” said Stephanie Jenouvrier, a scientist and seabird ecologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “Emperor penguins, like many species on Earth, face a very uncertain future, which is dependent on people working together to reduce carbon pollution.”

An Endangered Species Act listing helps enforce international cooperation on conservation strategies and increases funding for conservation programs and research. Under this rule, federal agencies must reduce threats to the bird, evaluate harms from major federal greenhouse gas emissions sources and ensure that industrial fisheries don’t deplete the penguin’s key prey.

While emperor penguin populations appear to be currently stable, the service has determined the species is in danger of future extinction in a significant portion of its habitat. There are currently about 61 breeding colonies along Antarctica’s coastline, with between 270,000-280,000 live breeding pairs or 625,000-650,000 individual birds. But scientists estimate that by 2050 the species’ global population size will likely decrease by up to 47%.

Not all penguin populations will shrink at the same rate across the continent, and experts expect that colonies in the Ross and Weddell seas will likely remain stable. However, colonies within the Indian Ocean, Western Pacific Ocean and Bellingshausen Sea and Amundsen Sea sectors are projected to decline by more than 90% due to melting ice.  

The scientists also noted in their report for the final rule that although climate change is the primary threat to the emperor penguin’s survival, multiple factors in the ocean and atmosphere are at play.

“It is not as simple as ‘melting sea ice,’” the report noted, listing other concerns like wind affecting ice thickness and stability and instances of early ice break up affecting colonies. Some colonies seek temporary refuge on ice shelves and are highly adapted for their marine environment, having survived previous glacial and inter- glacial periods. But the species has also shown little evidence of adapting to these new dire conditions.

“Because the resiliency of the emperor penguin at each colony is tied to the sea-ice conditions at a particular colony, estimates of sea-ice condition and the emperor penguin population are directly related. Therefore, sea ice serves as a proxy measure of all important habitat factors for the species,” the report said.

Female penguins usually lay only one egg each breeding season and share hatching and rearing duties with male penguins. Chicks leave at about 150 days old, then return and breed for the first time at age five. These penguins typically live about 20 years, although some observational studies have individuals living as long as 50 years. 

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