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Bearded seal's threatened listing prompts lawsuit from Alaska Native corp.

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times
Arctic Slope Regional Corp. alleges that the NMFS improperly relied on long-term projections that are inconsistent with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act in a decision last year to list bearded seals as threatened. ilovegreenland / flickr

An Alaska Native regional corporation says it will sue the U.S. Department of Commerce over a 2012 decision to list bearded seals as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The notice of intent to sue came from Arctic Slope Regional Corp., which joined the North Slope Borough and Inupiat Community of the Arctic, a regional tribal body, in filing the challenge. Arctic Slope alleges that the National Marine Fisheries Service improperly relied on long-term projections that are inconsistent with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. The model projected 87 years into the future, in a departure from the federal agency’s previous practice, where they acknowledged in 2008 that modeling beyond 2050 yielded results too divergent for reliable use, the Native entities argued.

Bearded seal skins are used traditionally by Natives for whaling boats. Dried meal and seal oil provides sustenance, too.  

The Center for Biological Diversity in Anchorage supports the listing, saying bearded seals have a chance to survive, but only if they have the full protection of the Endangered Species Act and if there are major efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The listing does not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska Natives.

“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, director of the Center for Biological Diversity office in Anchorage.

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 in Alaska, where an oil spill in icy waters would be impossible to clean up, Noblin said.

The Center for Biological Diversity on July 19 intervened in a lawsuit to defend the Arctic bearded seals from efforts of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and American Petroleum Institute to strip the bearded seals of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The North Slope Borough was formed in the early 1970s so that the oil industry could be taxed for doing business within the borough, and the borough has benefitted substantially from that income. Arctic Slope Regional Corp. meanwhile has had numerous contracts with the oil industry, which have brought money and jobs to area residents. 

This article was originally published by The Cordova Times and is reprinted here with permission.