The Whale Museum News & Events
Updated: December 22, 2006
Puget Sound orcas remain an endangered species
Thursday, December 21, 2006
By LISA STIFFLER AND ROBERT MCCLURE
A legal challenge that sought to strip local orcas of their endangered status was tossed out Wednesday by a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle.
"It's great news," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, an environmental group. "We're back where we thought we were when we got the listing."
In his ruling, Judge Thomas Zilly stated that the building and farming groups that brought the suit had not proved that they would be harmed by the protection of the orcas under the Endangered Species Act.
"Remarkably, plaintiffs have totally failed to provide any evidence of standing," Zilly stated.
The case was dismissed with prejudice, meaning the groups can't bring it back to court.
Russell Brooks, the Pacific Legal Foundation lawyer who represented the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Washington Farm Bureau, said Zilly "is punting. That's the nicest, most PC way to say it. The judge has an out, and he doesn't want to reach the hard issues."
Brooks said it's possible but not likely his clients will appeal.
Zilly "basically said don't come back until your water is shut off or your building permit is denied," Brooks said.
The suit he brought predicted that protecting the orcas would result in water and land-use restrictions near rivers inhabited by salmon, the orcas' prime food source, and that ultimately farmers could face fines and imprisonment.
The plaintiffs also argued that Puget Sound's orcas are not genetically distinct enough from other orcas to warrant protection.
The population of orcas that frequents the waters of Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands has seen its numbers shrink because of a decline in chinook salmon, the animals' favorite food; an increase in contamination of industrial pollutants that make them susceptible to disease and reduce their fertility; disruption by boats and ships; and in decades earlier they were caught for aquariums or killed.
They number about 90 animals. Historically, their population could have been around 200, scientists have estimated. Federal officials are seeking to rebuild the population to 120.
The local orcas were deemed endangered by the federal government in November 2005 after years of legal action by conservationists. Last month the National Marine Fisheries Service released its plan for boosting the population size.
Steve Mashuda of the Earthjustice law firm, which represented environmentalists in the suit, said, "We've heard a lot of negative publicity from the BIAW and the Farm Bureau, but they weren't able to demonstrate to the court that the listing harms them in any way.
"All of the folks on our side are happy to have this behind us," Mashuda said. "We're ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work on recovering orcas."
P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler can be reached at 206-448-8042 or email@example.com.
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