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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit today in federal district court in Washington, D.C., challenging the Bush administration’s refusal to designate critical habitat for imperiled Sea Otters in Alaska. Sea Otters in the Aleutian Islands and southwest Alaska were listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act in August 2005 following declines of up to 90 percent in many areas. With that listing, federal law requires that their critical habitat be protected as well.
Congress emphasized the importance of critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act, stating that “the ultimate effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act will depend on the designation of critical habitat,” and recent studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering than species without. Despite the importance of habitat protection, the Bush administration has vigorously opposed critical habitat designation for most species, designating such habitat only as a result of litigation.
In August 2000, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency within the Department of the Interior charged with protecting the nation’s wildlife, to protect Sea Otters in Alaska under the under the Endangered Species Act. Two lawsuits and five years later, Sea Otters finally received the protections of the Endangered Species Act. These protections, however, remain incomplete without critical habitat designation.
“Once again we are forced to ask the courts to require Bush administration officials to comply with the law,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Department of the Interior should be protecting Sea Otter habitat; instead, they are proposing oil drilling near it.”
The Department of the Interior this year has proposed opening up areas in the Bering Sea to offshore oil development. Meanwhile, Bush is considering lifting the presidential withdrawal that currently prohibits such drilling in Bristol Bay. Oil development in these areas could be devastating for the Sea Otter. Because they rely on their fur as insulation against the cold, Sea Otters are extremely vulnerable to oil spills. As many as a thousand Sea Otters died from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, while more recently, the Selendang Ayu oil spill in the Aleutian Islands in December 2004 killed numerous otters from this highly-endangered population.