Protecting Penguins Could Force Bush to Move on Climate Change

Though there are no wild penguins in North America, an environmental group is asking the US government to consider several species endangered -- a move that could help activists compel the government to act against global warming.

On Tuesday, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) petitioned the US Fish and Wildlife Service to classify twelve kinds of penguins as "endangered" or "threatened." The Center says the change could create legal leverage against activities that contribute to climate change or otherwise threaten the birds.

"We… believe that if and when penguins are listed," said CBD staff attorney Kassie Siegel, "US entities that are responsible for large sources of greenhouse emissions will also be responsible for analyzing the impact of those emissions on listed species like penguins."

The classification would mean federal agencies are required to ensure that their actions will not "jeopardize the continued existence" of the birds. For example, the Department of Transportation might have to issue stronger fuel efficiency standards to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions; the National Marine Fisheries Service might have to limit fishing of Antarctic krill, a major food source for penguins.

Classification would also permit activists to file lawsuits against corporations that jeopardize the species' survival.

Siegel said the Endangered Species Act has not been applied in this way before, but she added, "There's absolutely no reason why the law doesn't apply to greenhouse-gas emissions and shouldn't be enforced."

Only the Galápagos Penguin is currently protected by the US Endangered Species Act. The Center says the emperor, white-flippered, African and other penguins are also imperiled, their numbers declining due to habitat destruction, fisheries, oil spills and marine pollution, in addition to global warming. The petitioners point out that several of the penguin species they seek to have listed are already designated as threatened with extinction by the World Conservation Union and BirdLife International.

The Center also filed a petition in February 2005 to list polar bears, citing climate change as a major factor in diminishing their habitat and food sources. The organization had to sue US Fish and Wildlife Service to force the agency to complete its review, which is expected next month.

Siegel, who is also director of the Center's climate program, said a few other species affected by climate change have already been listed, including some butterflies and coral reefs.

"Our whole mission is the protection of imperiled species and biodiversity," said Siegel, "and we cannot fulfill that mission unless we do something about global warming, because global warming threatens virtually every eco-system on earth."

Legally, the Fish and Wildlife Service has 90 days to respond to the petition.

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