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North Slope files suit challenging seal listing

July 6th, 2013 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

The North Slope Borough announced last week that it was joining others in filing suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service over its recent decision to list some populations of Arctic Bearded seals as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

"We are very concerned about environmental impacts on bearded seals and other wildlife," said North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower "However, as our residents know, the population of bearded seals is currently healthy and abundant. This listing is improper because it is not based on good science. It also sets a bad precedent when the agency is making decisions based on speculation."

The fisheries service published its final rule in late December, listing four subspecies of ringed seals and two distinct population segments of bearded seals under the Endangered Species Act. The two populations of bearded seals listed as threatened were the Beringia and Okhotsk populations of bearded seals and the Arctic Okhotsk, and Baltic subspecies of ringed seals.

The listing had no impact on subsistence harvest of ice seals by Alaska Natives, but required Federal agencies that permit or fund projects that may affect a listed species consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure the activities they are permitting will not jeopardize the specific populations.

"Our scientists undertook an extensive review of the best scientific and commercial data. They concluded that a significant decrease in sea ice is probable later this century and that these changes will likely cause these seal populations to decline," said Jon Kurland, protected resources director for NOAA Fisheries' Alaska region, in a release last December announcing the listing.

The State of Alaska has also filed a suit, claiming the bearded seal populations are currently healthy and numerous. The state also claims the agency ignored data showing the distinct populations listed were abundant throughout their respective historic ranges.

The borough asserts the listings were not based on the best available scientific information, and that modeling projections through 2100 cover too extended a time period to be used as a basis for a listing.

"The borough is concerned about the bearded seals because the residents of the North Slope depend on bearded seals for subsistence," a release announcing the legal challenge stated. "Many borough residents are actively engaged in conservation efforts and scientific initiatives, and have the most detailed and current knowledge of bearded seal habitat, health and behavior."

NOAA Fisheries states, however, that sea ice and snow cover projected declines will likely impact the populations. Ringed seals nurse and protect their pups in snow caves, which are threatened by late ice formation in the fall, rain-on-snow events in the late winter, early break-up of spring ice as well as decreasing snow depths. The sea ice is also used by the populations for molting and breeding. Ironically, the sea ice in Barrow broke up so late that whalers nearly missed the entire spring migration.

The listing was first proposed in December of 2010 and public comment periods and public hearings were held over the course of the last two years. The agency extended the deadline for final listing for six months to June 2012 to consider additional scientific information, but in November of 2012, was ordered by the Alaska District Court to respond to a complaint about further delay.


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