State seeks delisting of ringed seals under Endangered Species Act
Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration is seeking to remove a seal species from the federal Endangered Species Act, a request which may have ramifications for the future of offshore oil drilling in Alaska.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Tuesday that it was petitioning the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service to delist the ringed seal. The move has support from the North Slope Borough, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.
While acknowledging the decline of the seals’ sea ice habitat, documented last year by NOAA’s Arctic Report Card, the Fish and Game statement noted that the ringed seal “continues to occupy the entire circumpolar Arctic, with an abundant population numbering in the millions.” It also questioned the availability of scientific data for the foreseeable future extending to the year 2100, as mentioned in the ringed-seal declaration.
“The best available scientific information now available indicates ringed seals are resilient and adaptable to varying conditions across their enormous range and are likely to adapt to habitat conditions that change over time,” state officials wrote.
NOAA spokeswoman Julie Speegle confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the state's petition had been received. Its arrival triggers a 90-day deadline for NOAA to "publish a finding in the Federal Register as to whether the petition presents substantial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted."
"In this case, if the answer is yes, we'd commence a new status review of Arctic ringed seals and make a determination within 12 months as to whether to delist," Speegle said. "If the answer is no, the process ends there (unless the petitioner sues us)."
Speegle noted that no public comment period is associated with NOAA's 90-day finding period. If officials decide to revisit the decision, she said, "we would then solicit information from the public to assist with a status review."
Ringed seals have been listed as threatened by NOAA since 2012. The Associated Press reported that U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline ruled against the listing in 2016, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld it in February 2018. According to Arctic Today, the 9th Circuit decision — heavily opposed by Alaska oil and gas interests — came soon after the Supreme Court declined to hear a challenge of a similar ruling for bearded seals.
The Center for Biological Diversity, which asked former President Barack Obama's administration to protect bearded and ringed seals, sued the fisheries service earlier this month to compel threatened-species protection for the two species.
“As these ice seals’ homes melt away, the Trump administration has to give these animals the protection the Endangered Species Act requires,” Emily Jeffers, a staff attorney with the center, said in a March 14 statement. “With the Arctic warming at twice the global warming rate, ringed and bearded seals urgently need our help.”
Eddie Grasser, director of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, said plans to petition against the listing have “been in the works for more than a couple of months.”
“One of the concerns we’ve raised, and we’ve raised it with a couple other species in Alaska, is that their numbering in the millions doesn’t appear to show a significant case for listing,” he said.
The other groups participating with the state had been working on similar requests “in parallel” regarding bearded seals, Grasser said, but asked to join their efforts with the state.
State officials gave NOAA advance notice a few months ago that they would be moving forward with the petition process, but Grasser said there wasn’t any immediate word on whether President Trump’s administration would be more amenable to the request than Obama's
Grasser hadn’t heard of any plans by the state to appeal the 9th Circuit’s ruling last year.
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