Science

Emperor penguins now a threatened species due to climate change, U.S. says

Antarctica's emperor penguin is at risk of extinction due to rising global temperatures and sea ice loss, the U.S. government said, as it gave the bird new protections under its Endangered Species Act.

Birds will get new protections under Endangered Species Act, with federal agencies required to reduce threats

Emperor penguins are seen in Dumont d'Urville, Antarctica, on April 10, 2012. On Tuesday, the U.S. listed the birds as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. (Martin Passingham/Reuters)

Antarctica's emperor penguin is at risk of extinction due to rising global temperatures and sea ice loss, the U.S. government said Tuesday as it finalized protections for the animal under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said emperor penguins should be protected as a threatened species under the law since the birds build colonies and raise their young on the Antarctic ice threatened by climate change.

The "threatened" status will promote international co-operation for conservation strategies, increase funding for conservation programs and require federal agencies in the United States to act to reduce threats.

The birds' listing would be accompanied by a ban on them being imported to, exported from or sold within the U.S., with exceptions for zoos, museums and some other public institutions.

The 1973 Endangered Species Act is credited with bringing several animals back from the brink of extinction, including grizzly bears, bald eagles, grey whales and others. The law has frustrated some drilling and mining industries among others, which can be stopped from developing areas deemed necessary for species survival.

The U.S. government says climate change has caused colonies to experience breeding failures. Here, a lone foraging emperor penguin 'toboggans' on its belly across the frozen Ross Sea off Ross Island, Antarctica, on Dec. 9, 2006. (Deborah Zabarenko/Reuters)

The wildlife agency's review followed a 2011 petition by the U.S. environmental group Center for Biological Diversity to list the bird under the Endangered Species Act. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service said a thorough review of evidence, including satellite data from 40 years, showed the penguins aren't currently in danger of extinction, but rising temperatures signal that is likely.

Newborn chicks drowning

Climate change has caused colonies to experience breeding failures, according to the government. The Halley Bay colony in the Weddell Sea, the second-largest emperor penguin colony in the world, experienced several years of poor sea ice conditions, leading to the drowning of all newborn chicks beginning in 2016, the government said.

Tuesday's designation was described as a warning that emperor penguins need "urgent climate action" in order to survive by Shaye Wolf, the climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Estimates put the emperor penguin population at about 650,000 individual birds but that number could be down by almost half under worst-case scientific estimates, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says. Here, emperor penguins are seen in Dumont d'Urville on April 10, 2012. (Martin Passingham/Reuters)

"The penguin's very existence depends on whether our government takes strong action now to cut climate-heating fossil fuels and prevent irreversible damage to life on Earth," Wolf said.

With files from CBC News

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