The federal government will delay a decision on listing two northern seals as threatened species because of climate change but will take another look at the status of a third seal it previously rejected.
The fisheries section of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed Monday it is seeking a six-month delay in deciding the status of ringed seals and two populations of bearded seals. NOAA Fisheries also will begin a new status review of ribbon seals.
All three species use sea ice to birth pups.
A spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned to list the seals, criticized the extension.
"While we're certainly happy the ribbon seal is getting a second chance at protection, there is no excuse for the delay in protecting the ringed and bearded seals," said Brendan Cummings by email. "No amount of new research or analysis over the next six months is going to change the fact that the Arctic is melting, that these species need sea ice to survive, and -- absent rapid and substantial cuts in greenhouse emissions -- we're headed to an ice-free Arctic."
The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for ringed and bearded seals in 2008, and when the agency missed deadlines, sued to force a decision.
NOAA Fisheries a year ago proposed listing ringed seals in the Arctic Basin and the North Atlantic and two populations of bearded seals in the Pacific Ocean because of projected loss of sea ice. For ringed seals, the proposal also cited the threat of reduced snow cover because of climate warming.
A final decision was due Saturday. NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Julie Speegle said by phone the agency is extending the final determination because of "disagreement over analysis of model projections of future sea ice habitat."
Ringed seals are the main prey of polar bears, which were listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008.
During winter, ringed seals off Alaska's coast live in completely ice-covered waters. They use stout claws to dig and maintain breathing holes. Females excavate the snow that eventually covers breathing holes to provide insulated shelters for themselves and their pups.
Young ringed seal pups cannot survive in water. They are susceptible to temperature stresses until they grow a blubber layer and shed their lanugo, the white, wooly coat they're born with.
Early breakup of sea ice threatens lairs, and warming can melt snow from above.
Bearded seals give birth and rear pups on drifting pack ice over shallow water where prey such as crabs is abundant. When females give birth, they need ice to last long enough in the spring and early summer to successfully reproduce and then molt. The projected retreat of sea ice away from shallow shelves decreases food availability, according to the listing petition.
The state of Alaska opposes both listings. The state unsuccessfully sued to overturn the listing of polar bears, claiming the designation of critical habitat could kill critical resource development projects. The state contends species should not be listed based on speculative risks of what might happen as sea ice declines, and not while populations are robust.
Ribbon seals are found in the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska and the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia. They are named for the patterns of their fur that give them the coloration of a panda bear.
During summer and fall, ribbon seals live entirely in the water and forage on fish, squid and crustaceans. From March through June, the seals rely on pack ice for reproduction and molting.
Ribbon seals give birth and nurse pups, which can't swim, exclusively on sea ice. Like ringed seals, newborn ribbon seals have a coat of lanugo and cannot survive submersion in icy water until after they've formed the blubber layer.
NOAA Fisheries in December 2008 rejected a threatened species listing for ribbon seals. Based on their interpretation of climate models, they concluded that annual ice would continue to form for ribbon seals each winter during the birthing and molting.
"New information has become available since then," Speegle said.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace Inc. sued in September 2009, lost at the U.S. District Court level but appealed to the 9th Circuit in January. NOAA Fisheries and the groups in August reached a settlement.
A 12-month finding will be due Dec. 10, 2012.