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The Road to Listing Southern Residents as Endangered

Southern Resident orcas were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, but it was not an easy road to get there. While the research by Michael Bigg and Ken Balcomb revealed decades ago that Southern Resident orcas were a discrete and special group, even in 2005 it was undetermined if they were actually a Distinct Population Segment - different enough from other orcas to be considered a discrete population. Ultimately, thanks to the detailed research by Center for Whale Research and many additional organizations, there was robust information to establish these orcas as a genetically distinct population with unique calls, social structure, and culture. Being designated a Distinct Population Segment led to their endangered listing and gave them the protection they needed. But is it enough? Stay tuned this month to learn more about how the ESA has helped with recovery efforts, and what more still needs to be done.


Check out the story below, which highlights the struggle to list Southern Residents as endangered, and a timeline of the process.


J Pod and L Pod ©Orca Network.


The road to listing Southern Residents as endangered

Southern Resident orcas were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, but it was not an easy road to get there. While the research by Michael Bigg and Ken Balcomb revealed decades ago that Southern Resident orcas were a discrete and special group, even in 2005 it was undetermined if they were actually a Distinct Population Segment - different enough from other orcas to be considered a discrete population. Ultimately, thanks to the detailed research by Center for Whale Research and many additional organizations, there was robust information to establish these orcas as a genetically distinct population with unique calls, social structure, and culture. Being designated a Distinct Population Segment led to their endangered listing and gave them the protection they needed. But is it enough? Stay tuned this month to learn more about how the ESA has helped with recovery efforts, and what more still needs to be done.


Timeline of events leading to Endangered status under the ESA:

2001 - A petition was sent to NOAA Fisheries on behalf of Center for Biological Diversity and co-petitioners to list the Southern Residents as endangered. NOAA determined that listing was not warranted at that time because Southern Residents were not considered a separate species or Distinct Population Segment (DPS), and instead began the process to list them as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

2002 - This decision was challenged in District Court, who issued an order for NOAA to redetermine the endangered listing. As a result, a Biological Review Team was reconvened and new scientific data was considered. They determined that Southern Residents do belong to a separate subgroup of resident killer whales and should be considered a discrete DPS. They also conducted a population viability analysis which modeled the probability of extinction.

2003 – Canada listed Southern Resident orcas as endangered under the Species at Risk Act.

2004 - Washington State listed Southern Resident orcas under the state ESA. Upon consulting with Washington State and Tribal co-managers, NOAA published a proposed rule to list Southern Residents as federally threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Ultimately, public comments and additional information convinced NOAA to list them as endangered.

2005 – Southern Residents were officially listed by NOAA as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.


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