Orcas to gain `threatened' species status

Reverses 2002 ruling on Puget Sound group

December 17, 2004|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEATTLE - The Bush administration yesterday proposed placing killer whales that reside in Washington state's Puget Sound on the list of endangered species, in an effort to save the last 84 of the acrobatic, often photographed orcas.

National Marine Fisheries Service, which ruled two years ago that endangered species protections were unwarranted, reversed itself after a federal judge ordered it to reconsider its legal justifications.

"It was never a question of whether we cared about the whales or not," said Robert Lohn, northwest regional administrator of the fisheries service. "Everyone knows that we did. The question was, `Did they qualify for a listing under the narrow criteria of the law?'"

Another review, he said, determined that the orcas qualified to join the list as a "threatened" species. The proposal is expected to be final within a year, after a public comment period.

Invoking the Endangered Species Act, which mandates protecting the habitat of theorcas, probably will lead to tougher rules to prevent oil spills and regulate ship traffic, as well as focus federal efforts on cleanup of toxic waste in the Puget Sound and prevent new sources of human-made toxins that accumulate in the animals' fat tissue. It also will mean that the waters in the Puget Sound and other areas, including Chinook salmon streams on and around the Olympic Peninsula, might be declared "critical habitat" to halt the decline in fish the orcas need for food.

The added protections, said Earthjustice lawyer Patti Goldman, "give me hope that the orcas will continue to make Puget Sound their home and my grandchildren will be able to see them."

Her group was part of a coalition of conservationists that sued to force the hand of the Bush administration, which has placed fewer species on the endangered list than any other since the act became law in 1973.

The population of orcas, actually a kind of dolphin, has plummeted from an estimated 200 in 1960 to fewer than 70 in 1973 when officials began annual counts.

Much of the decline was attributed to their capture for aquariums and theme parks.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing paper.

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