Agency designates reduced area as critical habitat for two eiders

Posted: Sunday, January 14, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated critical habitat areas for two threatened sea ducks, the spectacled eider and the Steller's eider.

But large areas of the North Slope designated in draft documents were eliminated from the final version, made public Friday.

Critical habitat designation requires other agencies to consult with Fish and Wildlife before issuing permits or taking other action to make sure they don't do anything to modify or destroy the habitat of threatened species.

The reductions from the North Slope were criticized by Brendan Cummings, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity. That group sued the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1999 to force it to designate critical habitat for the two species.

''We're clearly unhappy with the result,'' Cummings said. ''We believe the Fish and Wildlife Service applied the wrong legal standard in making their determination that critical habitat on the North Slope was not warranted.

''That's where the birds nest. Even if they spend a majority of their time at sea, protecting their nesting areas in essential to recovery.''

Cummings said his group was contemplating further legal action.

Fish and Wildlife biologists said it wasn't clear just what parts of the North Slope were essential to the birds, and designating broad swaths of habitat would not help the recovery effort.

''A portion of the nesting area on the North Slope is necessary for recovery, but not the entire area,'' said LaVerne Smith, the agency's assistant regional director for fisheries and ecological services. ''We could have continued to say the whole area (was critical habitat), but that would not provide any information to guide conservation decisions.''

For the spectacled eider, the service last March drew a line around 74,600 square miles. That number was cut to 39,000 square miles in the final document. Steller's eider critical habitat was first proposed at 25,400 square miles, then reduced to 2,830 square miles.

Areas designated as critical for the eiders are in the far northwestern corner of Alaska, Norton Sound, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, along the north shore of the Alaska Peninsula, and a huge offshore wintering area south of St. Lawrence Island.

Fish and Wildlife is already working with other agencies managing the North Slope nesting areas, Smith said, and critical habitat designation would have done very little. There would have been no impact on oil leasing, she said.

The reduction in acreage was applauded by members of Alaska's congressional delegation.

''The agency vastly overreached (in its original proposal),'' said Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski in a statement. ''It's never made any sense to declare so much of Alaska as critical for birds that spend most of their lives at sea, not on the lands being designated.''

Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles took a step further than the congressional Republicans, calling the critical habitat designation unnecessary.

''The state of Alaska will monitor this process to ensure the needs of Alaska commercial and subsistence fishermen are protected, along with other uses of these areas,'' Knowles said. The state might weigh in on the legal front if litigation continues, he said.

The agency did get support from Stan Senner, head of the National Audubon Society in Alaska.

''We think they did a pretty good job on the final decision on eider habitats,'' Senner said. We very much supported designation of critical habitat for both species. But we feel the original designations were not supported by science.''

Senner said he hoped there would be critical habitat designations on the North Slope for both eider species when scientists narrow the boundaries.

The Fish and Wildlife biologists are happy to get the designations out of the way, saying that habitat problems didn't trigger the precipitous declines in the bird populations.

The spectacled eider population in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta dropped by 96 percent in recent decades, the agency estimates, from 96,000 birds in the 1970s to fewer than 5,000 in 1992. The cause isn't clear, but possible culprits include spent lead shot, predation by foxes, gulls and jaegers, and ecosystem changes.

''Recovery of these birds is not going to come from designating the critical habitat area,'' said Richard Hannan, chief of fisheries and ecological service for Fish and Wildlife.

''If the birds don't recover, we haven't done our job. What we really need to focus on is conservation.''

The spectacled eider was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1993, the Steller's eider in 1997.

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