By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Two species of far-north seals, victims of disappearing sea ice and dwindling snowpack in their Arctic habitat, will be granted protections under the Endangered Species Act, federal officials announced on Friday.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ordered "threatened" listings for populations of ringed seals and bearded seals in the waters off northern Alaska, in parts of Russia and other regions of the Arctic.
Both types of seals depend on sea ice and snow, which is becoming scarce in the Arctic region during the non-winter months, NOAA officials said in a written statement.
"Our scientists undertook an extensive review of the best scientific and commercial data. They concluded that a significant decrease in sea ice is probable later this century and that these changes will likely cause these seal populations to decline," said Jon Kurland, protected resources director for the Alaska region of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.
The listings will become effective 60 days after NOAA's notice is published in the Federal Register.
Ringed seals use snow caves to nurse and protect their pups, NOAA said. The warming climate has brought autumn rains instead of the snowfalls that used to be dominant, and the warming trend has caused an earlier spring melting that leaves snowpack too shallow for cave formation, NOAA said.
Bearded seals use sea ice for breeding, nursing and raising their young, NOAA said, and both types of seals depend on floating sea ice during their early summer molting period, when they shed old fur to make way for new fur.
Arctic sea ice coverage this year shrank to the lowest level since satellite records began in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.
Ringed seals are the primary prey for polar bears, which in 2008 were listed as threatened because of similar problems with disappearing sea ice. Polar bears were the first animals granted Endangered Species Act protections because of climate change.
Now several other ice-dependent animals have been or are expected to be listed.
The decision covers bearded and ringed seals outside of U.S. territory as well as those off Alaska including a listing for a rare subspecies of ringed seal that lives in Ladoga Lake in Russia.
The listing decisions and studies have been prompted largely by petitions and litigation from an environmental organization, the Center for Biological Diversity. The center has also advocated for Endangered Species Act listings of the spotted and ribbon seal and the Pacific walrus.
A Center official said Friday's listing decision was a good step, but called on the Obama administration to do more.
"The Obama administration has to take decisive action, right now, against greenhouse gas pollution to preserve a world filled with ice seals, walruses and polar bears," Shaye Wolf, the center's climate science director, said in a statement.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Leslie Gevirtz)