By Harriet McLeod
(Reuters) - Habitats that could save threatened loggerhead sea turtles from extinction were identified on Friday by the U.S. government along 750 miles of Atlantic and Gulf Coast shoreline in six states.
The habitats include islands and mainland areas in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, including 90 beaches, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said.
"We are taking a step to draw attention to important habitats needed to support the recovery of this magnificent species," Cindy Dohner, the service's southeast regional director, said in a statement.
Three environmental groups sued the U.S. government in January, accusing it of failing to take urgent steps to ensure survival of loggerhead turtles, as specified by the Endangered Species Act.
Under the act, a species may be listed as threatened or endangered depending on its risk for extinction.
For more information on the Endangered Species Act see http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/endangered.html
The lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana Inc and Turtle Island Restoration said the marine turtles' long-term survival was threatened by destruction or degradation of nesting and foraging habitats, oil spills and other pollution, climate change, rising seas and erosion.
The groups first petitioned the government for action to protect loggerheads in 2007, said Jaclyn Lopez, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
"I think it's fair to say this action is a result of the work we've put before them since 2007," Lopez said on Friday.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Charles Underwood said the agency had already been working to identifying critical habitats, and that it had not done so in response to the lawsuit.
The agency is seeking public comment and data from wildlife biologists before the areas are formally designated as critical habitat, something Underwood said he expects to happen in about a year and a half.
Designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge. It requires federal agencies planning work in those areas, such as building sea walls, to consider the danger to nesting loggerhead turtles.
Loggerheads, which can live decades and weigh hundreds of pounds, were first designated as threatened in 1978.
In 2011, the federal government divided them into nine populations worldwide. The U.S. Atlantic loggerheads kept their threatened status while the U.S. Pacific Ocean population was classified as endangered.
Amanda Keledjian, a marine scientist with Oceana Inc, said species with designated critical habitats are twice as likely to show signs of recovering their population numbers as those without such areas.
"The turtles when they come ashore will have safe places to nest," Keledjian said.
She said the Fish and Wildlife Service designation applied only to beaches. The groups' lawsuit also included the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"We're waiting on them to make a similar determination for the in-water feeding and breeding critical habitat areas," Keledjian said.
(Editing by Jane Sutton, Toni Reinhold)
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