WASHINGTON— The Trump administration agreed today to finally make a decision on designating critical habitat in Alaska for two ice-seal species. Both bearded and ringed seals are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act because climate change is melting their Arctic sea-ice habitat.
The Center for Biological Diversity sued Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in June for failing to protect habitat for the ice seals. Both sides reached a stipulated agreement today requiring the administration to issue a critical habitat rule for the ice seals by September 2020.
“Ice seals’ homes are rapidly melting away, so it’s good to see the Trump administration pledge to protect their habitat. But it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to force officials to follow the law,” said Emily Jeffers, a staff attorney with the Center. “Ringed and bearded seals need our help to survive an Arctic that’s heating up at twice the global rate. They need habitat protections now, and they need us to quickly address climate change.”
Separate oil-industry challenges to protections for bearded seals and ringed seals were rejected by the federal courts last year. But the Trump administration didn’t take the legally required steps to protect their habitat. The Center first petitioned to protect both species in 2008, and the Obama administration listed them in 2012.
Ice seals are vulnerable to oil spills and habitat damage caused by climate change. Animals with federally protected critical habitat are more than twice as likely to be recovering as species without it. Designating critical habitat for the seals does not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska Natives.
Bearded seals, known for their mustachioed appearance and elaborate courtship songs, give birth and nurse their pups on pack ice. The rapid loss of that ice jeopardizes their ability to rear their young and is lowering the abundance of the seals’ food on their shallow foraging grounds in the Bering Sea.
Ringed seals, which are covered in dark spots surrounded by light gray rings, give birth in snow caves built on top of the sea ice. Global warming is reducing the amount of snowpack there, causing caves to collapse and leaving pups vulnerable to death by freezing or from predators.
To prevent the loss of the seals’ sea-ice habitat, the federal government has the authority and duty under the Act to address carbon pollution. Critical habitat protection ensures that all federal actions in the Arctic — such as those that permit oil and gas development and seismic surveys — avoid damaging areas essential to the species’ survival. Heightened protections will help existing habitat be more resilient over a longer period as the world works toward climate change solutions.