The Obama Administration cited habitat disruption primarily due to climate change as the reason for its proposed listing of six subspecies of Arctic seals as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act. The seals would be the first species since the polar bear to be listed as threatened primarily due to climate change. In addition to loss of sea ice habitat, ocean acidification, another major impact of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, was also cited as a primary threat. Habitat disruption will only increase for Arctic species if global warming continues unabated, and an Endangered Species listing can do little to protect the animals if the larger problem is not addressed.
The species listed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on December 3 include four subspecies of ringed seals and two populations of bearded seals, prompted by a 2008 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity to protect ringed, bearded and spotted seals under the ESA.
Both ringed and bearded seals are dependent upon sea ice to reproduce. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the ringed seal “excavates snow caves on top of the sea ice to create protected shelters for nursing pups. As the Arctic warms, the sea ice is breaking up earlier, and rain is falling on snow, causing snow caves to collapse and leading to the deaths of pups.” Bearded seals also “give birth and nurse their pups on pack ice. The rapid loss of pack ice jeopardizes their ability to rear young and is lowering the abundance of the seals’ food on their shallow foraging grounds in the Bering Sea.”
World Wildlife Fund Arctic species expert Geoff York commented on the listing:
“Listing these animals as threatened underscores what we have been saying. The entire arctic sea ice ecosystem is under threat. Not just these animals, but whole food webs are threatened by the shrinkage of summer sea ice. The only effective action we can take to stop this destruction of the Arctic marine ecosystem is to reduce the emission of gases causing global warming. We hope that governments meeting for climate negotiations right now in Cancun are paying attention.”
Also, on November 24, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) designated more than 187,000 square miles as critical habitat for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. The Washington Post reported: “Nearly 95 percent of the designated habitat is sea ice in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska’s northern coast. Polar bears spend most of their lives on frozen ocean where they hunt seals, breed and travel.”
The FWS is also under court order, in response to another lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, to determine by December 23 whether polar bears should be listed as endangered rather than threatened under the ESA—a status that would require more protection.
Arctic animals are currently threatened, becoming endangered, and ultimately will be driven to extinction if the break-up of their habitat by a warming climate continues unchecked. The science dictates that these species should be listed as threatened and should be protected, but the only way to fundamentally address the problem is to slow and limit melting of the ice. The ESA is not designed for such large-scale regulation, and the Obama administration is continuing the Bush Administration’s policy of not trying to force greenhouse gas regulation within the confines of the Act. ESA listings, a band-aid on a gaping wound, can block or limit oil and gas development in critical habitat areas, but ultimately these species can’t be saved without much broader action, on a global scale.
Scientific findings about global climate disruption and the concomitant loss of Arctic sea ice, combined with effective legal pressure on the government from the environmental community, have driven policymaking to the extent that the statutory requirements of the Endangered Species Act have been acknowledged to cover the threat to Arctic marine mammals. But we have yet to succeed in holding government accountable for coming to grips with the cause of the problem and taking effective steps to solve it.