Emperor Penguins Are Protected Under the Endangered Species Act – The New York Times


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Under the new listing, federal agencies are required to reduce threats to emperor penguins, which are vulnerable to warming temperatures and melting sea ice caused by climate change.
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Emperor penguins have been listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act because the animals’ sea ice habitat is shrinking, federal officials announced Tuesday. Experts predict that 99 percent of the world’s emperor penguin population will disappear by 2100 without significantly reducing carbon pollution.
The Antarctic sea ice, where the penguins spend much of the year, is under stress. Heat-trapping gases released by humans’ use of fossil fuels is causing the ice to disappear and break apart. That ice is essential to the animals’ livelihood — it is where they breed, raise their chicks and escape predators.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “endangered” means a species could face extinction throughout all or a large portion of its range. “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered in the near future. There are between 625,000 and 650,000 emperor penguins in the wild, or 270,000 to 280,000 breeding pairs, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The service's director, Martha Williams, said in a statement that the listing reflected the “growing extinction crisis.”
“Climate change is having a profound impact on species around the world and addressing it is a priority for the Administration,” Ms. Williams said. “The listing of the emperor penguin serves as an alarm bell but also a call to action.”
The designation, which comes more than a year after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced a proposal to protect the penguins, places the animals among a couple dozen species that the federal government considers threatened by climate change, including polar bears, two kinds of seals and 20 varieties of coral.
The Endangered Species Act is the world’s strongest environmental law that is intended to prevent extinction and foster the recovery of at-risk species, according to a news release from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, a research facility in Massachusetts. A listing under the act encourages international cooperation on conservation strategies, and, although the species is not found within the United States, federal agencies must now ensure that their projects that emit large amounts of carbon pollution do not threaten the penguin or its environment.
“Emperor penguins, like many species on earth, face a very uncertain future, which is dependent on people working together to reduce carbon pollution,” Stephanie Jenouvrier, an associate scientist and seabird ecologist at Woods Hole, said in the news release. “We should draw inspiration from the penguins themselves; only together can penguins brave the harshest climate on earth, and only together can we face a difficult climate future.”
It has been more than a decade since the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the emperor penguin under the Endangered Species Act, the news release said. In 2014, the agency agreed that the animal may be endangered because of climate change but did not take action. Five years later, the center sued the Trump administration for failing to act on the petition.
There are 18 different species of penguins, and the emperor penguin is the tallest, at nearly four feet. It and the Adélie, a medium-size penguin with a white ring around the eyes, are the only penguins native to Antarctica. Emperor penguins are an integral part of the Antarctic food chain, in which they prey upon squid and small fish and are preyed upon by larger predators like the leopard seal and killer whale.
Caring for their young is a task that involves both parents. After laying a single egg, females hunt while males hold it on their feet, covering it in a feathered pouch. After the egg hatches, the parents alternate caring for the chick. Young penguins that do not develop their adult feathers before the sea ice disappears cannot swim in the freezing waters and will die.
Emperor penguins do not fare well on land. They cannot climb icy cliffs and are vulnerable to warming weather and high winds. In 2016, the Antarctic’s second-largest colony of the birds lost more than 10,000 chicks after a period of heavy winds and record-low sea ice before the chicks had grown their feathers.
Amanda Holpuch contributed reporting.
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