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Environment: Oil industry seeks rollback of endangered species listing for Alaska’s bearded seals

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A bearded seal pup. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Conservation group joins legal fray, aiming to maintain protected status

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Oil companies may talk nice about protecting endangered species in Alaska, but when it comes to squeezing just a few more drops of oil from the region, industry fat cats sing a different tune.

Most recently, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and American Petroleum Institute have gone to court to try and strip endangered species protection from bearded seals, animals that rely on Arctic pack ice for much of their life cycle.

The state of Alaska and the North Slope Borough have also filed challenges to the bearded seal Endangered Species Act listing, awarded by the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2012 due to the loss of their sea-ice habitat, which is being melted by global warming.

Internationally, bearded seals are classified as “Low Risk-Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List. This species is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, as amended. Bearded seals are harvested annually for subsistence by Alaska Natives. In Russia, bearded seals are still hunted commercially.

Two distinct population segments of bearded seals are listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Beringia and Okhotsk populations.

The seals may not have a lot of fans among the drill, baby, drill crowd, the species does have the backing of the Center for Biological Diversity. Last week, the group intervened in the lawsuit, characterizing the industry’s legal move as being “about profits, not science.”

“There’s no scientific dispute that the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, and bearded seals are the poster child for the destructive effects of the global warming onslaught,” said Rebecca Noblin, the center’s Alaska director. “Bearded seals do have a chance to survive, but only if they have the full protection of the Endangered Species Act — and if we move fast to make major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” Noblin said.

Bearded seals, distinctive for their comical, mustachioed appearance and elaborate courtship songs, give birth and nurse their pups on pack ice. The rapid loss of pack ice jeopardizes their ability to rear young and is lowering the abundance of important food sources on their shallow foraging grounds off Alaska.

The seals’ winter sea-ice habitat in the Bering and Okhotsk seas off Alaska and Russia is projected to decline by at least 40 percent by 2050, while summer sea ice across the Arctic is projected to largely disappear in the next 20 years. These seals also face threats from proposed offshore oil and gas development off Alaska, where an oil spill in icy waters would be impossible to clean up.

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the listing gives the seals a bit more  protection against the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change, as well as oil and gas development. Listing of the seals does not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s prohibitions.

 

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