The lawsuit, brought against Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne and Dale Hall, head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The legal deadline at issue in the lawsuit was triggered by a scientific petition the Center filed in November 2006 seeking Endangered Species Act protection for many of the world's most threatened penguin species.
The 10 species at issue are the emperor penguin, southern rockhopper penguin, northern rockhopper penguin, Fiordland crested penguin, erect-crested penguin, macaroni penguin, white-flippered penguin, yellow-eyed penguin, African penguin, and Humboldt penguin.
A group of Emperor penguins with an Adelie penguin in front. Global warming is making it hard for them ot find food. (Photo courtesy SUNY-ESF)
The Galapagos penguin is the only penguin species currently listed under the Endangered Species Act.
In July 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the first of the three steps in the listing process when it found that these 10 penguin species may deserve protection and began status reviews for them.
The Fish and Wildlife Service's finding for the 10 penguin species triggered the duty to decide by November 29, 2007 whether the penguins qualify for listing under the Endangered Species Act, and if so, to propose them for listing. That decision is now more than two months overdue.
"This lawsuit will end the Bush administration's illegal delay of protection for the emperor penguin and other penguin species threatened by global warming," said Kassie Siegel, climate, air, and energy program director for the Center.
"We won't allow the administration to continue to violate the law while these penguin species march toward extinction," she said.
Warming ocean temperatures and shrinking sea ice have cut back a primary penguin food source. Krill, the keystone of the Antarctic marine ecosystem and an essential food source not just for penguins but also for whales and seals, has declined by as much as 80 percent since the 1970s over large areas of the Southern Ocean.
Scientists have linked the ocean conditions causing the decline in these small crustaceans to global warming and loss of sea ice.
Emperor penguins in particular are dependent on sea-ice extent and stability and therefore are extremely vulnerable to the effects of global warming.
The emperor penguin colony at Pointe Geologie, featured in the film "March of the Penguins," has declined by more than 50 percent due to global warming.
Each of the petitioned penguins also faces threats in addition to global warming, ranging from depletion of prey by industrial fisheries to entanglement in deadly fishing gear, introduced predators, disease, habitat destruction, disturbance at breeding colonies, marine pollution, and oil spills.
"Global warming is an overarching threat for the world’s penguins," said Dr. Shaye Wolf, a seabird biologist with the Center. "Absent prompt action to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the survival of these penguin species will be in doubt along with that of many other wildlife species."
Listing under the Endangered Species Act would provide broad protection to penguins, including a requirement that federal agencies ensure that any action carried out, authorized, or funded by the U.S. government will not jeopardize the continued existence of any species.
Federal actions likely to be affected by listing of the penguins would include the issuance of permits for industrial fisheries near Antarctica and approvals of projects resulting in greenhouse gas emissions.
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