updated 12/18/2003 9:16:04 AM ET 2003-12-18T14:16:04

A federal judge Wednesday ordered the government to rethink its finding that Washington state’s struggling orca population is not significant and does not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The National Marine Fisheries Service last year listed killer whales in Puget Sound as depleted but not endangered, a move that protected individual orcas but not their habitat.

Although the agency said the region’s inland orcas “face a relatively high risk of extinction,” it ruled that they were not a “significant population segment” and that orcas along the coast would fill the gap if they disappeared.

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik rejected that finding, calling it speculative and unsupported. He also said the fisheries service did not use the best available science when it based its decision on the health of the global orca population rather than the local population.

“The judge has given the Puget Sound killer whales the best Christmas gift they could have been afforded,” said Fred Felleman of Orca Conservancy, one of six plaintiffs represented by the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice.

Fisheries service spokesman Brian Gorman said officials had not decided whether to appeal the ruling, which gives the agency a year to reconsider it decision.

The fisheries service also must consider whether the orcas are endangered over a significant part of their range, Lasnik ruled — a factor that was not considered last year.

The Puget Sound orca population numbers 84, down from an unknown high that the plaintiffs suggested could have topped 200 at one time.

The whales have been struggling with pollution, human encroachment and dwindling salmon runs.

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