Image: Emperor penguins
Jerome Maison  /  AP
The Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list six species of penguin as threatened species and one — the African penguin — as an endangered species. But it has denied protection under the 1973 Endangered Species Act for three other species, including the emperor penguin, seen at left.
updated 12/17/2008 9:36:11 PM ET 2008-12-18T02:36:11

The Bush administration is moving to protect seven penguin species. Three other types, including the stars of recent movies, are being ignored.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to list six species of penguin as threatened and one, the African penguin, as an endangered species.

It has denied protection under the 1973 Endangered Species Act for three others, including the emperor and northern rockhopper penguins, stars of such popular movies as "March of the Penguins" and "Happy Feet."

The penguins live far from the United States, in places like Antarctica, South Africa, Peru, Argentina and New Zealand, so the protections of U.S. endangered species law are limited, officials said. Listing the penguins under the act, however, will raise awareness about the species and could give the United States leverage in international negotiations to protect them from fishing, habitat loss, development and other threats.

Praise and criticism
Environmentalists praised the Bush administration's proposal to list fully six penguin species, but criticized its decision not to protect the other three. The emperor penguin is the largest in the world and depends on sea ice for breeding and feeding.

Endangered species advocates also faulted the government for protecting a seventh species, the southern rockhopper penguin, in only a small part of its range.

"Penguin populations are in jeopardy, and we can't afford to further delay protections," said Brendan Cummings, the oceans program director for the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, which requested in November 2006 that the administration protect a dozen penguin species.

The government decided in July that there was insufficient information to do a review of two of the 12 species for which protection was sought.

The decision to protect seven still is open for public comment; so the Obama administration will make the final determination on them. For the others, any action to alter the Bush decision would require an entirely new review.

Not enough evidence?
The administration said there was not enough evidence to list the emperor as threatened because of global warming now or in the near future, although research has predicted that increasing temperatures could melt ice in Antarctica and also diminish populations of the penguin's preferred food such as krill.

About 390,000 emperor penguins live in 47 colonies in Antarctica. But while the populations of many penguin species are high, recent research has shown that about a dozen species are in decline because of numerous stresses, including climate change.

The other species not getting protection include the northern rockhopper penguin and the macaroni penguin.

"There are certainly issues with those species, but we did not believe at this time that the populations were reduced or that there were significant threats to lead us to make a determination that they are threatened with extinction," Kenneth Stansell, deputy director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in an interview.

The Bush administration listed the polar bear as a threatened species this year, the first species to be protected because of the threats of global warming. The administration also has completed regulations to ensure that the law is not used to block projects that contribute to global warming.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was under a court-ordered deadline to make decisions about the penguins by Thursday.

Scientists believe at least 16 and perhaps up to 19 penguin species exist, the number depending on whether some are categorized as subspecies.

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