Ice-dwelling seals to get U.S. Endangered Species Act listings

Yereth Rosen

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Two species of

far-north seals, victims of disappearing sea ice and dwindling

snowpack in their Arctic habitat, will be granted protections

under the Endangered Species Act, federal officials announced on

F ri day.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ordered

"threatened" listings for populations of ringed seals and

bearded seals in the waters off northern Alaska, in parts of

Russia and other regions of the Arctic.

Both types of seals depend on sea ice and snow, which is

becoming scarce in the Arctic region during the non-winter

months, NOAA officials said in a written statement.

"Our scientists undertook an extensive review of the best

scientific and commercial data. They concluded that a

significant decrease in sea ice is probable later this century

and that these changes will likely cause these seal populations

to decline," said Jon Kurland, protected resources director for

the Alaska region of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.

The listings will become effective 60 days after NOAA's

notice is published in the Federal Register.

Ringed seals use snow caves to nurse and protect their pups,

NOAA said. The warming climate has brought autumn rains instead

of the snowfalls that used to be dominant, and the warming trend

has caused an earlier spring melting that leaves snowpack too

shallow for cave formation, NOAA said.

Bearded seals use sea ice for breeding, nursing and raising

their young, NOAA said, and both types of seals depend on

floating sea ice during their early summer molting period, when

they shed old fur to make way for new fur.

Arctic sea ice coverage this year shrank to the lowest level

since satellite records began in 1979, according to the National

Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

Ringed seals are the primary prey for polar bears, which in

2008 were listed as threatened because of similar problems with

disappearing sea ice. Polar bears were the first animals granted

Endangered Species Act protections because of climate change.

Now several other ice-dependent animals have been or are

expected to be listed.

The decision covers bearded and ringed seals outside of U.S.

territory as well as those off Alaska including a listing for a

rare subspecies of ringed seal that lives in Ladoga Lake in

Russia.

The listing decisions and studies have been prompted largely

by petitions and litigation from an environmental organization,

the Center for Biological Diversity. The center has also

advocated for Endangered Species Act listings of the spotted and

ribbon seal and the Pacific walrus.

A Center official said Friday's listing decision was a good

step, but called on the Obama administration to do more.

"The Obama administration has to take decisive action, right

now, against greenhouse gas pollution to preserve a world filled

with ice seals, walruses and polar bears," Shaye Wolf, the

center's climate science director, said in a statement.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Leslie Gevirtz)