The charismatic killer whale, or orca, is the totem species of northwest Washington and coastal British Columbia, where its images adorn everything from coffee mugs to long-houses. This intelligent, social predator is known to form lasting social bonds — living in highly organized pods where everyone cares for the young, sick, or injured. But like many endangered species, these groups must learn how to navigate the complicated terrain of the 21st century and the dangers it presents.

The Center has used science and law to save the Puget Sound killer whale. We brought together a population ecologist, a toxicologist and an endangered species activist to study the whales' life history, habitat needs, threats and population trends; we also enlisted a lawyer to review legal mandates for the protection of imperiled species. This diverse group produced an important population analysis, revealing that if current trends continue, the Puget Sound whale population will go extinct within 100 years.

These whales are distinct from all others — genetically unique, with a unique dialect and one of the only orca populations to feed extensively on salmon.

Our science and legal team immediately set to work developing a citizen petition to list the Puget Sound whales under the Endangered Species Act. After this petition was filed with the Bush administration's National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency determined that the whale population was in danger of extinction but that this was “not significant” — making the extraordinary claim that extinction is not meaningful. We took that to the courts, and, following a legal victory, the Service announced that it would protect the southern resident killer whale population in Puget Sound as an endangered species. With critical habitat designated the following year, we began developing a recovery plan to ensure the whales' survival. In 2014 we filed a petition to expand their critical habitat protections to cover foraging grounds further down the coast from Puget Sound. The Fisheries Service said it planned critical habitat expansion — but not until sometime in 2017.

In early 2016 the agency began a five-year review of the orcas' status, prompting the Center to urge expanded habitat now.