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Environment | Flora and Fauna

Effort Launched To Strip Protection For Puget Sound Orcas

The southern resident orcas of Puget Sound could lose federal protection as an endangered species under a legal effort launched Thursday.

The southern resident orcas of Puget Sound could lose federal protection as an endangered species under a legal effort launched Thursday.

Creative Commons/mrmritter

The southern Puget Sound’s struggling population of orcas could lose federal protection if a new effort succeeds at removing the whales from endangered species list.

The Pacific Legal Foundation today petitioned for the delisting. It claims the federal government wrongly identified the “southern resident” killer whales as a distinct population that merits protection under the ESA.

“In fact, there is no scientific basis for treating them as part of a separate subspecies that is distinct from other Orcas,” the foundation said in a press release.

When the southern resident orcas are in open waters of the Pacific, their diet includes salmon that are native to California’s San Joaquin Delta. These orcas eat the salmon that populate California’s San Joaquin Delta. Under the Endangered Species Act, that means there needs to be enough water in the river for those fish. If orcas are taken off the list, the farmers could get more water for crop irrigation.

“The petitioners that we’re representing are farmers in California who have had water allocations cut back and have had to drastically reduce their operations,” says Daniel Himebaugh, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation.

The Oregonian newspaper first reported the legal effort to remove federal protection for the southern resident orcas.

On its website,, the newspaper quotes an endangered species expert and conservationist who says the presence of orcas elsewhere in the waters of the Pacific Ocean doesn’t justify letting the Northwest’s population decline or expire.

“One of the primary purposes in establishing the Endangered Species Act was to protect U.S. populations of species,” Noah Greenwald told the newspaper. Greenwald is endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The resident orcas of Puget Sound are a distinct subspecies of killer whales. They eat salmon – not marine mammals. Their markings are slightly different from the rest of the killer whale family. So are their calls and their DNA.

Orcas in Puget Sound were placed on the federal endangered species list in 2005. Researchers have been looking for clues to understand why the three pods in this group of whales have not grown in population despite recovery efforts and protection. Officials say stress in the heavily boat-trafficked waters and toxins are contributing to their challenges.

A report last year concluded Puget Sound orcas were inbreeding so much that their genetic diversity could be diminishing, further jeopardizing their ability to survive

There are about 86 resident killer whales in the region and that number hasn’t increased since 2000 when the population crashed.

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