Center for Biological Diversity

Protecting endangered species and wild places of western North America
and the Pacific through science, policy, education, and environmental law.


lawsuit to challenge the Fish and Wildlife Service's policy of putting endangered species in legislative purgatory

November 15, 2000
Contact: Brent Plater (510) 841-0812
More Information: Sea Otters, Killer Whales

The Center for Biological Diversity today filed notice of its intent to sue the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in order to challenge the FWS's attempt to list the Aleutian population of sea otters as a 'candidate species' under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). The lawsuit alleges that the FWS's policy of precluding candidate species from the protective provisions of the ESA while simultaneously admitting that the protections are warranted is inapplicable in Alaska and contrary to federal law.

Under FWS regulations implementing the ESA, species that are listed as candidate species are considered to be 'warranted but precluded': that is, the agency admits that the species is in fact threatened or endangered, but claims it is precluded from providing full protection for the species because other species have a higher listing priority. On November 9, 2000, the FWS published a notice in the federal register classifying the Aleutian population as a candidate species under the ESA.

However, the Alaskan region of the FWS cannot claim that the Aleutian population is precluded from listing, because there are no other species currently in the listing queue. "There is no other endangered or threatened species in the Alaska region that could possibly preclude the normal and timely operation of the ESA for sea otters," said Brendan Cummings, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. "If the FWS holds to its policy of treating candidate species as warranted but precluded, the public can only conclude that the FWS is using the candidate species process to evade the mandates of federal law, as we've suspected all along."

Once widely abundant throughout coastal areas, the sea otter was hunted to the brink of extinction by commercial hunters. However, after decades of protection, sea otter populations rebounded, and continued to climb through the 1980's. Unfortunately, this conservation success story has taken a turn for the worse: sea otter populations throughout Alaska have been declining rapidly since the mid-80's. No sea otter population has had as dramatic a decline as the Aleutian population. Once the largest population in the world, the population has declined by 95% over the past few years, with perhaps only 6,000 individuals remaining.

Scientists believe that increased predation by killer whales is causing the precipitous decline in sea otter populations. Although killer whales in the region have traditionally subsisted on larger marine mammals such as stellar sea lions and harbor seals, the populations of these two prey species have declined precipitously in recent years, forcing killer whales to hunt other prey. Yet the killer whale population may also be declining, indicating that the entire north pacific ecosystem is in dire condition.

"Species throughout the north pacific are falling like dominoes," said Brent Plater, spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity. "The ecosystem decay is so severe that one endangered species or population is competing with and killing another. With an entire system falling apart, the FWS's attempt to put the sea otter in legislative purgatory is so much more reprehensible."


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