U.S. officials are seeking to list emperor penguins as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act due to climate change, with the request coming as an independent study warns that nearly all of the seabird’s colonies could be nearly wiped out by 2100.
“Climate change, a priority challenge for this Administration, impacts a variety of species throughout the world,” Martha Williams, principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, said in a statement. “The decisions made by policymakers today and during the next few decades will determine the fate of the emperor penguin.”
Melting sea ice is primarily jeopardizing the emperor penguin’s ability to form breeding colonies, forage for food and avoid predators due to their habitat’s destruction along Antarctica’s coastline, officials said.
“As carbon dioxide emissions rise, the Earth’s temperature will continue to increase, causing large patches of sea ice to melt. The melting ice could affect a variety of species, including emperor penguins, who rely on sea ice for survival,” the FWS said in release.
The federal agency estimates that though the penguins’ populations are currently robust, their global size will likely decrease by 26 to 47% by 2050. That’s under low and high carbon emissions scenarios, respectively.
This puts them “in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future in a significant portion of its range,” the FWS said.
Another study published Tuesday in the journal Global Change Biology painted a more dire picture, however, with it concluding that around 70% of emperor penguin colonies will be endangered by 2050. By 2100, 98% could be on the brink of extinction, the study found.
The study determined that rapid cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, specifically limiting warming to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit under the international Paris Agreement, would be “by far the most important action for preventing catastrophic species losses.” Protecting natural habitat, increasing habitat connectivity and reducing non-climate stressors would also increase the species’ resilience to climate stress.
This study’s findings were considered by the FWS with its proposal on Tuesday, The New York Times reported.
The U.S. officially left the Paris Agreement in late 2020 under the leadership of then President Donald Trump. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to rejoin it immediately after taking office in January. By joining the pact, nations agree to limit their greenhouse gas emissions to help prevent global warming.
The FWS said that not all emperor penguin colonies are expected to be affected equally by climate change, with populations in the Ross and Weddell Seas likely to remain stable for the species during its projected timeline. Other colonies ― specifically the Indian Ocean, Western Pacific Ocean, Bellingshausen Sea and Amundsen Sea sectors ― are meanwhile projected to decline by over 90% due to melting sea.
Though this estimated decline is concerning, the FWS said “there is still time to prevent the species from becoming endangered throughout a significant portion of its range.”
Listing emperor penguins under the Endangered Species Act would make it unlawful to harass, harm, or capture the animal without a permit. It would also be illegal to significantly modify or degrade its habitat in ways that kill or injure the animal, including by impairing its essential behavior patterns, such as breeding, feeding or sheltering.
Though the species is not found within the U.S., this new threatened status could have an impact on fishing regulations. Environmentalists hope it will impact fossil fuel use as well, as the Times reported.
“The hope is that, with these added protections, approvals of U.S. fossil fuel projects will have to weigh harms to penguins and their Antarctic habitat, ultimately reducing heat-trapping pollution worldwide,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told the Times.
A 60-day public comment period now follows the FWS’s recommendation.
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