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Ecology and salmon related articles

Science Fails to Back Orca ESA Listing

by Damien M. Schiff & Daniel A. Himebaugh
Capital Press, August 23, 2012

Early this month, with the help of property rights attorneys from Pacific Legal Foundation, two California farms asked federal officials to drop the Endangered Species Act listing for killer whales (orcas) in the marine waters of the Pacific Northwest.

The petition to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration quickly caused battle lines to be formed, with some environmental groups, and even some in the media, trying to laugh it off as baseless.

But fair observers shouldn't jump to conclusions about the petition before the government has a chance to review it. Everyone who favors a balanced, credible approach to environmental regulations should pause and take a look at what the petition says.

The first thing to understand is why "delisting" what is known as the southern resident distinct population segment (DPS) of orcas is important to farmers in Central California's San Joaquin Valley. In fact, the listing's impact extends to urban and agricultural water users as far south as San Diego.

For several years now, farmers and communities in Central and Southern California have suffered dramatic cutbacks in the water they receive from the federal and state water projects. These reductions are due in part to a "biological opinion," produced by federal regulators, that said the pumping of water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could interfere with killer whale prey sources, like salmon; so pumping cutbacks were necessary to benefit the orca.

The science behind this biological opinion is controversial, and a federal judge ordered it re-written. But water cutbacks took effect and are slated, as of now, to continue. As a result, farmers like Joe Del Bosque of Fresno County (one of the petitioners) had to fallow hundreds of acres and significantly reduce employees' hours.

Surely, Del Bosque's employees -- and workers at hundreds of other farms -- cannot be pleased about losing wages because the government has concluded that whales in the ocean hundreds of miles away are affected by their use of water.

Next, it is important to have a good grasp on the reasons the petitioners believe the southern resident orca DPS should be delisted. The orca is one of the most widely distributed mammals in the world, with a global population of around 50,000. But instead of looking at its entire population, federal officials focused only on one geographic area -- the North Pacific -- and arbitrarily labeled orcas in that region to be a subspecies, then carved out an even smaller group of whales to classify as endangered.

Yes, there are differences between southern resident orcas and other orca populations around the world, but the petition cites recent scientific research showing that none of those differences are significant in terms of biology, behavior or genetics. So while there might be political reasons for breaking up orca populations into tiny units to support listing them as endangered, there are not good scientific reasons for doing so.

Finally, and make no mistake about it, if the petition is granted and the federal government delists the southern resident population, killer whales in the Puget Sound will not be put in harm's way. Even without ESA protection applied to them, the killer whales that comprise the southern resident DPS will still be protected in the waters of the Pacific Northwest, by federal and state laws.

In light of the consequences of the orca listing for jobs and the economy -- and the listing's questionable scientific basis -- the petition should be considered seriously and judged on its merits.

Damien M. Schiff is a principal attorney, based in Sacramento, with Pacific Legal Foundation.
Daniel A. Himebaugh is an attorney with PLF's Pacific Northwest office in Bellevue, Washington
Science Fails to Back Orca ESA Listing
Capital Press, August 23, 2012

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