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Federal officials propose expanding protection for Hawaiian monk seals

By Audrey McAvoy

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 1:30 p.m. HST, Jun 3, 2011

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday proposed expanding federally protected zones — or critical habitat — for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal to include parts of the main Hawaiian Islands.

The federal government defines critical habitat to be places that are essential to the conservation of species listed under the Endangered Species Act. 

The species in this case — the Hawaiian monk seal — is facing some of the most severe threats to survival of any federally protected animal.

There are fewer than 1,200 of the seals in existence and the population is declining at a rate of about 4 percent a year. Scientists say the species could become extinct in 50 to 100 years if the trend is not reversed. 

Parts of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — remote, tiny atolls that are now part of a national marine monument — have been critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal since 1986. 

The new proposal, which was published in the Federal Register on Thursday, would add beaches and some offshore areas of Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Maui, and the Big Island to the list of officially protected areas. 

More parts of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — including another section of Midway Atoll — would also be added.  Altogether, 16 areas are being considered.

The move comes in response to a petition filed by environmental groups in 2008.

"This species faces a number of threats, and it's imperative we ensure they have safe areas where they can rest and take care of their young," Michael Tosatto, regional administrator of the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office, said in a statement. 

Under the Endangered Species Act, federal agencies must ensure their actions — as well as actions they fund or authorize — don't harm the critical habitats of protected species. People and organizations that aren't funded by the federal government, or those who aren't operating under federal permits, are not covered by the law. 

Expanding monk seal critical habitat would enlarge the area federal agencies must make sure they don't harm.  

NOAA's Pacific Islands Regional Office plans to accept public comments on the proposal through Aug. 31. It expects to post dates, times and locations for public hearings on its website.

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