Pacific Legal Foundation Files Petition To De-List Killer Whale

In a petition to de-list filed today, attorneys from the Pacific Legal Foundation assert that the 2005 listing of the Southern Resident killer whale distinct population segment (“DPS”) as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) is illegal. The petition, filed on behalf of a non-profit organization and two San Joaquin Valley farms, petitions the Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to de-list the Southern Resident killer whale DPS as endangered. The Southern Resident killer whale DPS was listed as endangered in 2005 and is the only population of killer whale that is listed under the ESA.

The principal argument asserted in the petition to de-list is that the Southern Resident killer whale DPS is a DPS of a subspecies, and the listing of a DPS of a subspecies is not authorized by the ESA. The petition asserts that because the ESA only authorizes the listing of a species, subspecies, and DPSs of species, the listing of a DPS of a subspecies is not authorized.

In addition, the petition argues that the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) should de-list the Southern Resident DPS because “the subspecies designation on which it is founded is without scientific basis.” The petition asserts that NMFS’s designation of a North Pacific resident subspecies is not supported by genetic data, and that many of the differences between populations of killer whales can be explained as learned behaviors or responses to varying environmental conditions, rather than genetic differences.

Two of the petitioners are farms located in the San Joaquin Valley, who suffered severe water supply cutbacks in 2009, “in part due to the protections afforded the killer whale under the ESA.” The Southern Resident DPS was one of the species considered in a 2009 Biological Opinion issued by NMFS, which concluded that the ongoing operations of the State Water Project (“SWP”) and the federal Central Valley Project (“CVP”) would jeopardize the continued existence of several species, including the Southern Resident killer whale. That Biological Opinion, in part, resulted in severe water supply cutbacks to the farmers that rely on water from the SWP and CVP. The petition identifies “the delisting of the killer whale [as] one necessary step in preventing further catastrophic water cutbacks.”

The 2009 Biological Opinion was found to be arbitrary and capricious by a federal district court and was remanded back to NMFS. See Consolidated Salmonid Cases, 791 F. Supp. 2d 802 (E.D. Cal. 2011). That district court decision is now the subject of multiple appeals before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. (Ninth Circuit Case Nos. 12-15144, 12-15289, 12-15290, 12-15291, 12-15293, and 12-15296.)

For additional information regarding the petition to de-list the killer whale, please contact Elizabeth Leeper or the KMTG attorney with whom you normally consult. Additional information regarding the listing of Southern Resident DPS is available here.