An environmental conservation group has sued the federal government, alleging it failed to meet its obligation to protect the habitat of endangered southern-resident killer whales on the West Coast.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to hold the government accountable for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act by not acting on a 2014 petition filed by CBD that sought to expand “critical habitat” areas for the orcas from Puget Sound waters to include the coastline down to near San Francisco. The organization has filed 82 other lawsuits against the Trump administration, demanding action to protect species from a type of giant fly native to California to the grizzly bear, but this is the first regarding orcas.
The lawsuit comes after the death of a newborn calf last month, drawing international attention to the plight of southern-resident killer whales. The total population of the mammals, whose diets rely almost exclusively on chinook salmon, has dwindled to 75, the lowest in more than three decades, according to the lawsuit. By expanding the protection zone, CBD wants to limit water pollution and boat traffic around the animals, helping their survival chances in light of the shortage of chinook.
“We’re turning to the courts to compel the Trump administration to do the right thing,” Catherine Kilduff, a lawyer for CBD, said in a statement. “Federal law requires protection of endangered species’ habitat. Our basic humanity should lead us to help prevent these beloved orcas from dying out right in front of our eyes.”
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, names the National Marine Fisheries Service, its West Coast regional administrator, and the U.S. secretary of Commerce as defendants. It said the Fisheries Service had agreed in February 2015 that expanding the protection zone for the orcas was “warranted,” but has since failed to take action, putting the orcas at greater risk of extinction.
Species with federally protected habitat are more than twice as likely to be in recovery as species without it, according to a study by the CBD. The organization said it may file a separate lawsuit to establish a 10-square-mile protection zone in the Haro Strait, which lies between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island, to protect orca feeding areas.
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