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Judge rules Beringia bearded seals improperly listed as threatened

Yereth Rosen

Alaska's bearded seals, animals with distinctive whiskers and a penchant for floating alone on pieces of drifting Arctic sea ice, were improperly granted threatened-species status in 2012, a federal judge ruled Friday

The National Marine Fisheries Service erred in using a 100-year projection as justification for granting Endangered Species Act protections to the Alaska-dwelling population of that seal, U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline ruled.

Such a long-term projection was overly speculative, Beistline said in his ruling, which came in legal challenges filed by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the North Slope Borough and the state of Alaska. Fifty years into the future was generally the longest projection that could be considered reliable, Beistline said.

The NMFS in December 2012 gave threatened listings to two distinct populations of bearded seals – the Beringian population, which includes Alaska seals, along with seals in adjacent areas; and the Okhotsk population, which lives in the Sea of Okhotsk west of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. At the same time, NMFS also listed as threatened three distinct populations of ringed seals, including the Arctic population, which encompasses Alaska.

The listings cited loss of seasonal sea ice and, for ringed seals, snow that is used for pupping dens as significant factors justifying Endangered Species Act protections.

But Beistline found fault with the NMFS study of the Beringia distinct population of bearded seals. The agency failed to demonstrate that any near-term threats to that population segment exist, he said in his ruling.

“Troubling to this Court is that it does not appear from the Listing Rule that any serious threat of a reduction in the population of the Beringia DPS, let alone extinction, exists prior to the end of the 21st century,” Beistline said. “Indeed, the Listing Rule itself concedes that, at least through mid-21st century, there will be sufficient sea ice to sustain the Beringia DPS at or near its current population levels.”

It appears, at least from the NMFS listing rule, that there is no significant threat to the Beringia population until 2090, Beistline said.

Whether Beringia bearded seals will ultimately retain Endangered Species Act protections was unclear Friday. Beistline ordered NMFS to correct deficiencies in its study of the population.

NMFS spokeswoman Julie Speegle said the agency could not comment until it has reviewed the ruling.