Ribbon seals should be listed as threatened or endangered because global warming is quickly melting sea ice, which the seals depend on for several months each year, two environmental groups said in a lawsuit filed against the federal government in San Francisco Thursday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in December denied a listing under the Endangered Species Act for the seals found off the coasts of Alaska and Russia.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace sued in U.S. District Court, claiming the agency ignored the best science available on global warming. Shaye Wolf, a Center for Biological Diversity biologist, said her group had hoped NOAA officials would changes its conclusions with a change in presidents.
"We've seen no change here," she said. "The Obama administration is continuing the flawed and head-in-the-sand policies of the Bush years."
NOAA spokeswoman Connie Barclay in Washington, D.C., had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.
Ribbon seals are found in the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska and the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia. Ribbon seals are distinguished by the patterns of their fur that gives them the coloration of a panda bear: white bands or ribbons that encircle the head, base of the trunk and two front flippers over a dark coat.
Federal biologists estimate the population at about 200,000 globally with a Bering Sea population of 100,000 or more. During summer and fall, ribbon seals live entirely in the water, foraging on fish, squid and crustaceans.
From March through June, the seals rely on loose pack ice in the Bering and Okhotsk seas for reproduction and molting, and as a platform for foraging.
Ribbon seals give birth and nurse pups, which can't swim, exclusively on sea ice. Newborn ribbon seals have a coat of soft, white hair called lanugo that provides insulation until they grow a thick layer of blubber. Pups can survive submersion in icy water only after they've formed the blubber layer.
Diminished sea ice due to early melting also could affect molting adults, according to the groups. New hair can only grow when ribbon seals are out of the water where skin can reach higher temperatures.
NOAA officials in December said climate models project annual ice will continue to form for the seals each winter during the critical birthing and molting period.
The lawsuit claims the agency is taking too shortsighted of a look at the animals' plight, projecting ice loss out only until mid-century.
Wolf said the agency's own data indicates sea ice extent by 2050 will decline by 40 percent in April and 55 percent in May. That by itself is a significant loss of key habitat, she said.
"Imagine if that downward projection were extended beyond 2050, how much more ice the ribbon seal would lose," she said.
It's irrational to look only 43 years ahead, she said, when reviews for polar bears and other species use climate projections out 100 years.
The agency also did not consider whether climate change and ice loss could affect a distinct population segment of ribbon seals.
George Pletnikoff, a senior oceans campaigner with Greenpeace who grew up on St. George Island in the Bering Sea, said the federal government must fulfill it's mandate to protect Arctic wildlife.
"The habitat of the ribbon seal is going away," he said Thursday. "They need to be protected. What else can we do? What should we do?"