No. 362, June 21, 2005












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On 6-14-05, the Center for Biological Diversity won a lawsuit ordering the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate critical habitat for the North Pacific right whale by 6-30-06. Formerly abundant in the Pacific Ocean, the North Pacific right whale has been reduced to likely well under 100 animals in the Bering Sea. Like its cousin in the Atlantic, the North Pacific right whale was previously threatened by intense whaling, and is currently threatened by pollution, entanglement in fishing gear and ship collisions due to significant increases in commercial shipping traffic in the Bering Sea. Critical habitat has been designated in the Atlantic, but none was designated in the Pacific despite the requirement by the federal Right Whale Recovery Plan to do so by 1996. National Marine Fisheries Service biologists have also pushed for critical habitat declaring that it "is a necessary component of any effort to conserve and recover this species." Agency biologists prepared a draft critical habitat designation, but were not permitted to release it publicly or complete the protection process.

After studying right whale use areas and habitat correlations in the Bering Sea, the Center petitioned the Fisheries Service to designate critical habitat in the southeast portion of the Bering Sea near Bristol Bay, Alaska on 10-4-00. The Fisheries Service declared that the petition presented "substantial scientific information that the designation of a critical habitat may be warranted," but took no further action to protect the species, forcing the Center to file suit on behalf of the world's most endangered whale.

To learn more about the right whale, read the petition, and see a map of the proposed critical habitat area click here.


On 6-1-05, the Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the Bush administration for delaying efforts to protect Alaskan sea otters under the Endangered Species Act. Otter populations in the Aleutian Islands and the Alaska Peninsula have declined precipitously in the past decade, leading Center scientists to document the species’ plight and file a petition to have the otter placed on the endangered species list in 2000. In a 2005 article in Marine Mammal Science, government biologists concluded that sea otter populations have continued to decline since the Center filed the petition.

The Alaska office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed with the Center and independent scientists who assert that the species will become extinct without conservation intervention. The agency prepared a proposed listing rule in 2002, but the Department of Interior refused to either approve or deny the proposal. The Center filed suit forcing the Department to approve the proposal in 2004. Now the Department of Interior is stalling again, and refuses to approve or deny a final protection decision. This action fits the general pattern of the administration, which has listed fewer species than any other administration in the history of the Endangered Species Act and has created fewer recovery plans than any administration since the 1970s, when the recovery program was not yet fully developed.

After the fur trade nearly pushed the sea otter over the precipice of extinction, the species was saved by an international fur trade ban. The Alaska sea otter population made a remarkable comeback, and by 1985 it comprised over 80 percent of the world's total sea otter population. Then began one of the most widespread and precipitous population declines in recorded history. The Aleutian Islands population has declined by over 95 percent. The Bush administration's roadblocks and delays have led to the deaths of literally thousands of additional sea otters.

To learn more about Alaskan sea otters and the Center's efforts to protect them click here.


On 3-2-05 a federal judge cleared the way for a unique lawsuit seeking to protect the endangered Okinawa dugong from the devastating effects of a planned 1.5 mile long U.S. airbase on a coral reef on the east coast of Okinawa, Japan. The Center for Biological Diversity, Earthjustice, and the Japanese plaintiffs in the case believe the base would destroy the reef and possibly drive the dugong extinct. The Okinawa dugong has been reduced to just 50 animals.

The suit is as unique as the dugong, because it seeks to protect the imperiled creature not under environmental laws, but under cultural protection laws. The U.S. National Historic Preservation Act requires that all federal agencies—including the Department of Defense (DOD)—abide by the historic preservation laws in the countries where their activities have an impact. Japan has placed the dugong on its register of protected cultural properties because it is a cultural treasure and icon to the people of Okinawa.

Exemplifying a spectacular insensitivity, the Department of Defense asked that the case be dismissed on the grounds that the dugong is not a cultural or historic entity by American (or least DOD) standards. In her ruling, Judge Patel reminded the DOD that the very concept of culture means that not everyone has the same values and process as America. The DOD argument, she wrote, "def[ies] the basic proposition that just as cultures vary, so too will their equivalent legislative efforts to preserve their culture." The case will now go forward and examine the likely impacts of the airbase on the dugong.


Perennial anti-endangered species advocate Richard Pombo (R-CA) has slinked away from pushing a bill to open the Farallon Islands National Marine Sanctuary to ham radio operators and other tourists. Intensely opposed by marine biologists and environmentalists, the bill would have reversed a long-standing policy of allowing only a handful of strictly regulated scientific researchers on the island refuge 27 miles off the coast of San Francisco. Since 1969, the Farallons have been dedicated to providing habitat to great white sharks, orcas, blue whales, humpback whales, Steller sea lions, elephant seals, harbor seals, harbor porpoises, Pacific white-sided dolphins and half the world's population of the ashy storm-petrel. With 250,000 birds nesting there each year, the Farallons are the largest seabird breeding area south of Alaska.

Before the Farallons gained federal protection as a refuge, humans devastated the islands' marine life. When sealers arrived in the early 1800s, they wiped out all the northern fur seals, sea lions and elephant seals for their fur. During the Gold Rush, "eggers" cleared the islands of seabird eggs to feed a hungry San Francisco, which caused the numbers of common murres to plummet from an estimated half million to just a few thousand by the turn of the century. President Theodore Roosevelt established the Farallon Islands as a refuge in 1909, although it wasn't until 1969 that the largest part of the islands—South Farallon Island—was protected. The refuge totals 211 acres, half of which consists of small granite rock outcroppings in the Pacific Ocean. The refuge strategy has successfully increased wildlife populations and benefited thousands of miles of human-inhabited coastal areas that are visited by these exciting wildlife species during other times of the year.

Playing down the embarrassing retreat from a very ill-conceived bill, a Pombo spokesperson told the San Francisco Chronicle that Pombo has "a very full plate working on the Endangered Species Act and the energy bill. This was barely on the radar screen as a piece of legislation. It's no skin off his back to remove his name from the bill."


Scientists have long studied and deplored the impact of exotic Arctic foxes on island seabirds. Introduced to Alaska's Aleutian Islands in the early 20th century by fur farmers, Arctic foxes ate millions of seabirds before aggressive removal and protection programs were put in the place. They are still a problem on many islands. The Aleutian Canada goose was pushed onto the endangered species list by fox depredation and rebounded to recovery when foxes were removed from its critical breeding grounds.

Recently, however, a more subtle, and perhaps more profound fox impact has been discovered. When occurring in vast numbers, seabirds are a massive source of nitrogen-rich fertilizer: bird poop. It enriched the thin, rocky island soil allowing it to support lush grasslands. Comparing nine islands with no foxes, lots of birds, and prodigious poop against nine islands with lots of foxes, few birds and a paucity of poop, scientists found that the former islands were lush with beach rye and other dense growth. The latter were dominated by scruffy tundra and leafy plants. The study indicates that exotic species can profoundly change ecosystems by altering everything from soil microbes to dominant vegetation communities to bird life.

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