[Federal Register Volume 77, Number 249 (Friday, December 28, 2012)]
[Rules and Regulations]
[Pages 76705-76738]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2012-31066]



[[Page 76705]]

Vol. 77

Friday,

No. 249

December 28, 2012

Part III





Department of Commerce





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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration





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50 CFR Parts 223 and 224





Endangered and Threatened Species; Threatened Status for the Arctic, 
Okhotsk, and Baltic Subspecies of the Ringed Seal and Endangered Status 
for the Ladoga Subspecies of the Ringed Seal; Final Rule

Federal Register / Vol. 77 , No. 249 / Friday, December 28, 2012 / 
Rules and Regulations

[[Page 76706]]


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DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

50 CFR Parts 223 and 224

[Docket No. 101126590-2478-03]
RIN 0648-XZ59


Endangered and Threatened Species; Threatened Status for the 
Arctic, Okhotsk, and Baltic Subspecies of the Ringed Seal and 
Endangered Status for the Ladoga Subspecies of the Ringed Seal

AGENCY: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and 
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce.

ACTION: Final rule.

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SUMMARY: We, NMFS, issue a final determination to list the Arctic 
(Phoca hispida hispida), Okhotsk (Phoca hispida ochotensis), and Baltic 
(Phoca hispida botnica) subspecies of the ringed seal (Phoca hispida) 
as threatened and the Ladoga (Phoca hispida ladogensis) subspecies of 
the ringed seal as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 
We will propose to designate critical habitat for the Arctic ringed 
seal in a future rulemaking. To assist us in this effort, we solicit 
information that may be relevant to the designation of critical habitat 
for Arctic ringed seals. In light of public comments and upon further 
review, we are withdrawing the proposed ESA section 4(d) protective 
regulations for threatened subspecies of the ringed seal because we 
have determined that such regulations are not necessary or advisable 
for the conservation of the Arctic, Okhotsk, or Baltic subspecies of 
the ringed seal at this time. Given their current population sizes, the 
long-term nature of the primary threat to these subspecies (habitat 
alteration stemming from climate change), and the existing protections 
under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is unlikely that the 
proposed protective regulations would provide appreciable conservation 
benefits.

DATES: This final rule is effective on February 26, 2013. Replies to 
the request for information regarding designation of critical habitat 
for Arctic ringed seals must be received by February 26, 2013.

ADDRESSES: You may submit comments and information related to the 
identification of critical habitat for the Arctic ringed seal to Jon 
Kurland, Assistant Regional Administrator for Protected Resources, 
Alaska Region, NMFS, Attn: Ellen Sebastian. You may submit this 
information, identified by FDMS Docket Number NOAA-NMFS-2010-0258, by 
any one of the following methods:
     Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic public 
comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal http://www.regulations.gov. 
To submit information via the e-Rulemaking Portal, first click the 
``submit a comment'' icon, then enter NOAA-NMFS-2010-0258 in the 
keyword search. Locate the document you wish to comment on from the 
resulting list and click on the ``Submit a Comment'' icon on the right 
of that line.
     Mail: Submit written comments to P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, 
AK 99802.
     Fax: (907) 586-7557.
     Hand delivery to the Federal Building: 709 West 9th 
Street, Room 420A, Juneau, AK.
    Comments must be submitted by one of the above methods to ensure 
that the comments are received, documented, and considered by NMFS. 
Comments sent by any other method, to any other address or individual, 
or received after the end of the comment period, may not be considered.
    All comments received are a part of the public record and will 
generally be posted for public viewing on www.regulations.gov without 
change. All personal identifying information (e.g., name, address, 
etc.) submitted voluntarily by the sender may be publicly accessible. 
Do not submit confidential business information, or otherwise sensitive 
or protected information.
    NMFS will accept anonymous comments (enter ``N/A'' in the required 
fields if you wish to remain anonymous). Attachments to electronic 
comments will be accepted in Microsoft Word or Excel, WordPerfect, or 
Adobe PDF file formats only.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Tamara Olson, NMFS Alaska Region, 
(907) 271-5006; Jon Kurland, NMFS Alaska Region, (907) 586-7638; or 
Marta Nammack, NMFS Office of Protected Resources, (301) 427-8469.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

    On March 28, 2008, we initiated status reviews of ringed, bearded 
(Erignathus barbatus), and spotted seals (Phoca largha) under the ESA 
(73 FR 16617). On May 28, 2008, we received a petition from the Center 
for Biological Diversity to list these three species of seals as 
threatened or endangered under the ESA, primarily due to concerns about 
threats to their habitat from climate warming and loss of sea ice. The 
petitioner also requested that critical habitat be designated for these 
species concurrently with listing under the ESA. In response to the 
petition, we published a 90-day finding that the petition presented 
substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the 
petitioned action may be warranted (73 FR 51615; September 4, 2008). 
Accordingly, we prepared status reviews of ringed, bearded, and spotted 
seals and solicited information pertaining to them.
    On September 8, 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a 
lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia 
alleging that we failed to make the requisite 12-month finding on its 
petition to list the three seal species. Subsequently, the Court 
entered a consent decree under which we agreed to finalize the status 
review of the ringed seal (and the bearded seal) and submit a 12-month 
finding to the Office of the Federal Register by December 3, 2010. 
Following completion of a status review report and 12-month finding for 
spotted seals in October 2009 (74 FR 53683; October 20, 2009; see also 
75 FR 65239; October 22, 2010), we established Biological Review Teams 
(BRTs) to prepare status review reports for ringed and bearded seals.
    The status review report for the ringed seal (Kelly et al., 2010a) 
is a compilation of the best scientific and commercial data available 
concerning the status of the species, including identification and 
assessment of the past, present, and future threats to the species. The 
BRT that prepared this report was composed of eight marine mammal 
biologists, a fishery biologist, a marine chemist, and a climate 
scientist from NMFS's Alaska and Northeast Fisheries Science Centers, 
NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Lab, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife 
Service (FWS). The status review report underwent independent peer 
review by five scientists with expertise in ringed seal biology, Arctic 
sea ice, climate change, and ocean acidification.
    The BRT reviewed the best scientific and commercial data available 
on the ringed seal's taxonomy and concluded that there are five 
currently recognized subspecies of the ringed seal: Arctic ringed seal; 
Baltic ringed seal; Okhotsk ringed seal; Ladoga ringed seal; and Saimaa 
ringed seal (which previously was listed as endangered under the ESA; 
58 FR 26920; May 6, 1993).
    On December 10, 2010, we published in the Federal Register a 12-
month finding and proposed to list the Arctic, Okhotsk, Baltic, and 
Ladoga subspecies

[[Page 76707]]

of the ringed seal as threatened (75 FR 77476). We also concluded in 
that finding that the Saimaa subspecies of the ringed seal remains in 
danger of extinction, consistent with its current listing as endangered 
under the ESA. We published a 12-month finding for bearded seals as a 
separate notification concurrently with this finding (75 FR 77496; 
December 10, 2010), and proposed to list two population segments of 
bearded seals as threatened.
    On December 13, 2011, we published in the Federal Register a 
document announcing a 6-month extension of the deadline for a final 
listing determination to address substantial disagreement relating to 
the sufficiency or accuracy of the model projections and analysis of 
future sea ice, and in particular snow cover, for Arctic ringed seals 
(76 FR 77466). At that time we also announced that to address the 
disagreement and better inform our final determination, we would 
conduct a special independent peer review of the sections of the status 
review report over which there was substantial disagreement. We 
subsequently conducted this special peer review and made available for 
comment the resulting peer review report (NMFS, 2012) that consolidated 
the comments received (77 FR 20773; April 6, 2012).

ESA Statutory, Regulatory, and Policy Provisions

    Two key tasks are associated with conducting an ESA status review. 
The first is to identify the taxonomic group under consideration; and 
the second is to conduct an extinction risk assessment to determine 
whether the petitioned species is threatened or endangered.
    To be considered for listing under the ESA, a group of organisms 
must constitute a ``species,'' which section 3(16) of the ESA defines 
to include ``any subspecies of fish or wildlife or plants, and any 
distinct population segment of any species of vertebrate fish or 
wildlife which interbreeds when mature.'' The term ``distinct 
population segment'' (DPS) is not commonly used in scientific 
discourse, so FWS and NMFS developed the ``Policy Regarding the 
Recognition of Distinct Vertebrate Population Segments Under the 
Endangered Species Act'' to provide a consistent interpretation of this 
term for the purposes of listing, delisting, and reclassifying 
vertebrates under the ESA (61 FR 4722; February 7, 1996). The five 
subspecies of the ringed seal qualify as ``species'' under the ESA. In 
the Summary of Comments and Responses below, we discuss the application 
of the DPS policy to the ringed seal subspecies.
    The ESA defines the term ``endangered species'' as ``any species 
which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant 
portion of its range.'' The term ``threatened species'' is defined as 
``any species which is likely to become endangered within the 
foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its 
range.'' The foreseeability of a species' future status is case 
specific and depends upon both the foreseeability of threats to the 
species and foreseeability of the species' response to those threats. 
When a species is exposed to a variety of threats, each threat may be 
foreseeable over a different time frame. For example, threats stemming 
from well-established, observed trends in a global physical process may 
be foreseeable on a much longer time horizon than a threat stemming 
from a potential, though unpredictable, episodic process such as an 
outbreak of disease that may never have been observed to occur in the 
species.
    The principal threat to ringed seals is habitat alteration stemming 
from climate change. In the 2008 status review for the ribbon seal 
(Boveng et al., 2008; see also 73 FR 79822, December 30, 2008), NMFS 
scientists used the same climate projections used in our risk 
assessment for ringed seals (which is summarized in the preamble to 
this final rule), and analyzed threats associated with climate change 
through 2050. One reason for that approach was the difficulty of 
incorporating the increased divergence and uncertainty in climate 
scenarios beyond that time. Other reasons included the lack of data for 
threats other than those related to climate change beyond 2050, and the 
fact that uncertainty embedded in the assessment of the ribbon seal's 
response to threats increased as the analysis extended farther into the 
future.
    Since completing the analysis for ribbon seals, with its climate 
impact analysis, NMFS scientists have revised their analytical approach 
to the foreseeability of threats due to climate change and responses to 
those threats, adopting a more threat-specific approach based on the 
best scientific and commercial data available for each respective 
threat. For example, because the climate projections in the 
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC's) Fourth Assessment 
Report (AR4; IPCC, 2007) extend through the end of the century (and we 
note the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), due in 2014, will extend 
even farther into the future), for our analysis of ringed seals we used 
the same models to assess impacts from climate change through 2100. We 
continue to recognize that the farther into the future the analysis 
extends, the greater the inherent uncertainty, and we incorporated that 
limitation into our assessment of the threats and the species' 
response. For other threats, where the best scientific and commercial 
data do not extend as far into the future, such as for occurrences and 
projections of disease or parasitic outbreaks, we limited our analysis 
to the extent of such data. This threat-specific approach creates a 
more robust analysis of the best scientific and commercial data 
available. It is also consistent with the memorandum issued by the 
Department of Interior, Office of the Solicitor, regarding the meaning 
of the term ``foreseeable future'' (Opinion M-37021; January 16, 2009).
    NMFS and FWS recently published a draft policy to clarify the 
interpretation of the phrase ``significant portion of the range'' in 
the ESA definitions of ``threatened'' and ``endangered'' (76 FR 76987; 
December 9, 2011). The draft policy consists of the following four 
components:
    1. If a species is found to be endangered or threatened in only a 
significant portion of its range, the entire species is listed as 
endangered or threatened, respectively, and the ESA's protections apply 
across the species' entire range.
    2. A portion of the range of a species is ``significant'' if its 
contribution to the viability of the species is so important that, 
without that portion, the species would be in danger of extinction.
    3. The range of a species is considered to be the general 
geographical area within which that species can be found at the time 
FWS or NMFS makes any particular status determination. This range 
includes those areas throughout all or part of the species' life cycle, 
even if they are not used regularly (e.g., seasonal habitats). Lost 
historical range is relevant to the analysis of the status of the 
species, but cannot constitute a significant portion of a species' 
range.
    4. If the species is not endangered or threatened throughout all of 
its range, but it is endangered or threatened within a significant 
portion of its range, and the population in that significant portion is 
a valid DPS, we will list the DPS rather than the entire taxonomic 
species or subspecies.
    The Services are currently reviewing public comment received on the 
draft policy. While the Services' intent ultimately is to establish a 
legally binding interpretation of the term ``significant portion of the 
range,'' the draft policy does not have legal effect until such time as 
it may be adopted as final policy. However, the discussion

[[Page 76708]]

and conclusions set forth in the draft policy are consistent with 
NMFS's past practice as well as our understanding of the statutory 
framework and language. We have therefore considered the draft policy 
as non-binding guidance in evaluating whether to list the Arctic, 
Okhotsk, Ladoga, and/or Baltic subspecies of the ringed seal under the 
ESA.

Species Information

    A thorough review of the taxonomy, life history, and ecology of the 
ringed seal is presented in the status review report (Kelly et al., 
2010a; available at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/). This 
information, along with an analysis of species delineation and DPSs, 
was summarized in the preamble to the proposed rule (75 FR 77476; 
December 10, 2010) and will not be repeated here.

Summary of Factors Affecting the Ringed Seal

    Section 4(a)(1) of the ESA and the listing regulations (50 CFR part 
424) set forth procedures for listing species. We must determine, 
through the regulatory process, if a species is endangered or 
threatened because of any one or a combination of the following 
factors: (1) The present or threatened destruction, modification, or 
curtailment of its habitat or range; (2) overutilization for 
commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes; (3) 
disease or predation; (4) inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; 
or (5) other natural or human-made factors affecting its continued 
existence. The preamble to the proposed rule discussed each of these 
factors for each subspecies of the ringed seal (75 FR 77476; December 
10, 2010). That discussion will not be repeated in its entirety here, 
but we provide a summary for each of the factors below. Section 4.2 of 
the status review report provides a more detailed discussion of the 
factors affecting the five subspecies of the ringed seal (see 
ADDRESSES). The data on ringed seal abundance and trends of most 
populations are unavailable or imprecise, especially in the Arctic and 
Okhotsk subspecies, and there is little basis for quantitatively 
linking projected environmental conditions or other factors to ringed 
seal survival or reproduction. Our risk assessment therefore primarily 
evaluated important habitat features and was based upon the best 
available scientific and commercial data and the expert opinion of the 
BRT members.

A. Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of 
the Species' Habitat or Range

    The main concern about the conservation status of ringed seals 
stems from the likelihood that their sea ice habitat has been modified 
by the warming climate and, more so, that the scientific consensus 
projections are for continued and perhaps accelerated warming in the 
foreseeable future. A second concern, related by the common driver of 
carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, is the modification of 
habitat by ocean acidification, which may alter prey populations and 
other important aspects of the marine ecosystem. A reliable assessment 
of the future conservation status of each of the subspecies of the 
ringed seal therefore requires a focus on the observed and projected 
changes in sea ice, snow cover, ocean temperature, ocean pH (acidity), 
and associated changes in ringed seal prey species.
    The threats associated with impacts of the warming climate on the 
habitat of ringed seals (analyzed in the preamble to the proposed rule 
and in the status review report), to the extent that they may pose 
risks to these seals, are expected to manifest throughout the current 
breeding and molting range (for snow and ice related threats) or 
throughout the entire range (for ocean warming and acidification) of 
each of the subspecies.
    While our inferences about future regional ice and snow conditions 
are based upon the best available scientific and commercial data, we 
recognize that there are uncertainties associated with predictions 
based on hemispheric projections or indirect means. We also note that 
judging the timing of the onset of potential impacts to ringed seals is 
complicated by the coarse resolution of the IPCC models. Nevertheless, 
NMFS determined that the models reflect reasonable assumptions 
regarding habitat alterations to be faced by ringed seals in the 
foreseeable future.
Regional Sea Ice and Snow Cover Predictions by Subspecies
    Arctic ringed seal: In the East Siberian, Chukchi, Beaufort, Kara-
Laptev, and Greenland Seas, as well as in Baffin Bay and the Canadian 
Arctic Archipelago, little or no decline in ice extent is expected in 
April and May during the remainder of this century. In most of these 
areas, a moderate decline in sea ice is predicted during June within 
this century; while substantial declines in sea ice are projected in 
July and November after mid-century. The central Arctic (defined as 
regions north of 80[deg] N. latitude) also shows declines in sea ice 
cover that are most apparent in July and November after 2050. For 
Hudson Bay, under a warmer climate scenario (for the years 2041-2070) 
Joly et al. (2010) projected a reduction in the sea ice season of 7-9 
weeks, with substantial reductions in sea ice cover most apparent in 
July and during the first months of winter.
    In the Bering Sea, April and May ice cover is projected to decline 
throughout this century, with substantial inter-annual variability 
forecasted in the eastern Bering Sea. The projection for May indicates 
that there will commonly be years with little or no ice in the western 
Bering Sea beyond mid-century. Very little ice has remained in the 
eastern Bering Sea in June since the mid-1970s. Sea ice cover in the 
Barents Sea in April and May is also projected to decline throughout 
this century, and in the months of June and July, ice is expected to 
disappear rapidly in the coming decades.
    Based on model projections, April snow depths over much of the 
range of the Arctic ringed seal averaged 25-35 cm in the first decade 
of this century, consistent with on-ice measurements by Russian 
scientists (Weeks, 2010). By mid-century, a substantial decrease in 
areas with April snow depths of 25-35 cm is projected (much of it 
reduced to 20-25 cm). The deepest snow (25-30 cm) is forecasted to be 
found just north of Greenland, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and 
in an area tapering north from there into the central Arctic Basin. 
Southerly regions, such as the Bering Sea and Barents Sea, are 
forecasted to have snow depths of 5 cm or less by mid-century. By the 
end of the century, April snow depths of 20-25 cm are forecasted only 
for a portion of the central Arctic, most of the Canadian Arctic 
Archipelago, and a few small isolated areas in a few other regions. 
Areas with 25-30 cm of snow are projected to be limited to a few small 
isolated pockets in the Canadian Arctic by 2090-2099.
    Okhotsk ringed seal: None of the IPCC models performed 
satisfactorily at projecting sea ice for the Sea of Okhotsk, so 
projected surface air temperatures were examined relative to current 
climate conditions as a proxy to predict sea ice extent and duration. 
Sea ice extent is strongly controlled by temperature; this is 
especially true for smaller bodies of water relative to the grid size 
of available models. Also, the physical processes by which increased 
greenhouse gases (GHGs) lead to warming are better understood and more 
easily modeled than the other processes that influence sea ice

[[Page 76709]]

formation and persistence. Therefore, whether the whole geographic 
region around the Sea of Okhotsk is above or below the freezing point 
of sea water should be a reasonable indicator of the presence or 
absence of sea ice.
    Based on that analysis, ice is expected to persist in the Sea of 
Okhotsk in March during the remainder of this century, although ice may 
be limited to the northern region in most years after mid-century. 
Conditions for sea ice in April are likely to be limited to the far 
northern reaches of the Sea of Okhotsk or non-existent by 2100. Little 
to no sea ice is expected in May by mid-century. Average snow depth 
projections for April show depths of 15-20 cm only in the northern 
portions of the Sea of Okhotsk in the past 10 years and nowhere in that 
sea by mid-century. By the end of the century average snow depths are 
projected to be 10 cm or less even in the northern Sea of Okhotsk.
    Baltic and Ladoga ringed seals: For the Baltic Sea, we considered 
the analysis of regional climate models by Jylh[auml] et al. (2008). 
They used seven regional climate models and found good agreement with 
observations for the 1902-2000 comparison period. For the forecast 
period 2071-2100, one model predicted a change to mostly mild 
conditions, while the remaining models predicted unprecedentedly mild 
conditions. They noted that their estimates for a warming climate were 
in agreement with other studies that found unprecedentedly mild ice 
extent conditions in the majority of years after about 2030. The model 
we used to project snow depths (CCSM3) did not provide adequate 
resolution for the Baltic Sea. The climate models analyzed by 
Jylh[auml] et al. (2008), however, forecasted decreases of 45-60 days 
in duration of snow cover by the end of the century in the northern 
Baltic Sea region. The shortened seasonal snow cover would result 
primarily from earlier spring melts, but also from delayed onset of 
snow cover. Depth of snow is forecasted to decrease 50-70 percent in 
the region over the same period. The depth of snow also will be 
decreased by mid-winter thaws and rain events. Simulations of the snow 
cover indicated that an increasing proportion of the snow pack will 
consist of icy or wet snow.
    For example, ice cover has diminished about 12 percent over the 
past 50 years in Lake Ladoga. Although we are not aware of any ice 
forecasts specific to Lake Ladoga, the simulations of future climate 
reported by Jylh[auml] et al. (2008) suggest warming winters with 
reduced ice and snow cover. Snow cover in Finland and the Scandinavian 
Peninsula is projected to decrease 10-30 percent before mid-century and 
50-90 percent by 2100 (Saelthun et al., 1998, cited in Kuusisto, 2005).
Effects of Changes in Ice and Snow Cover on Ringed Seals
    Ringed seals are vulnerable to habitat loss from changes in the 
extent or concentration of sea ice because they depend on this habitat 
for pupping, nursing, molting, and resting. The ringed seal's broad 
distribution, ability to undertake long movements, diverse diet, and 
association with widely varying ice conditions suggest resilience in 
the face of environmental variability. However, the ringed seal's long 
generation time and ability to produce only a single pup each year will 
challenge its ability to adapt to environmental changes such as the 
diminishing ice and snow cover projected in a matter of decades. Ringed 
seals apparently thrived during glacial maxima and survived warm 
interglacial periods. How they survived the latter periods or in what 
numbers is not known. Declines in sea ice cover in recent decades are 
more extensive and rapid than any other known decline for at least the 
last few thousand years (Polyak et al., 2010).
    Ringed seals create birth lairs in areas of accumulated snow on 
stable ice including the shorefast ice over continental shelves along 
Arctic coasts, bays, and inter[hyphen]island channels. While some 
authors suggest that shorefast ice (ice attached to the shore) is the 
preferred pupping habitat of ringed seals due to its stability 
throughout the pupping and nursing period, others have documented 
ringed seal pupping on drifting pack ice both nearshore and offshore. 
Both of these habitats can be affected by earlier warming and 
break[hyphen]up in the spring, which shortens the length of time pups 
have to grow and mature in a protected setting. Harwood et al. (2000) 
reported that an early spring break[hyphen]up negatively impacted the 
growth, condition, and apparent survival of unweaned ringed seal pups. 
Early break-up was believed to have interrupted lactation in adult 
females, which in turn, negatively affected the condition and growth of 
pups.
    Unusually heavy ice has also been implicated in shifting 
distribution, high winter mortality, and reduced productivity of ringed 
seals. It has been suggested that reduced ice thickness associated with 
warming in some areas could lead to increased biological productivity 
that might benefit ringed seals, at least in the short-term. However, 
any transitory and localized benefits of reduced ice thickness are 
expected to be outweighed by the negative effects of increased 
thermoregulatory costs and vulnerability of seal pups to predation 
associated with earlier ice break-up and reduced snow cover.
    Ringed seals, especially the newborn, depend on snow cover for 
protection from cold temperatures and predators. Occupation of 
subnivean lairs is especially critical when pups are nursed in late 
March-June. Ferguson et al. (2005) attributed low ringed seal 
recruitment in western Hudson Bay to decreased snow depth in April and 
May. Reduced snowfall results in less snow drift accumulation next to 
pressure ridges, and pups in lairs with thin snow cover are more 
vulnerable to predation than pups in lairs with thick snow cover 
(Hammill and Smith, 1989; Ferguson et al., 2005). When snow cover is 
insufficient, pups can also freeze in their lairs as documented in 1974 
when roofs of lairs in the White Sea were only 5-10 cm thick (Lukin and 
Potelov, 1978). Similarly, pup mortality from freezing and polar bear 
(Ursus maritimus) predation increased when unusually warm spring 
temperatures caused early melting near Baffin Island in the late 1970s 
(Smith and Hammill, 1980; Stirling and Smith, 2004). Prematurely 
exposed pups also are vulnerable to predation by wolves (Canis lupus) 
and foxes (Alopex lagopus and Vulpes vulpes)--as documented during an 
early snow melt in the White Sea in 1977 (Lukin, 1980)--and by gulls 
(Laridae) and ravens (Corvus corax) as documented in the Barents Sea 
(Gjertz and Lydersen, 1983; Lydersen and Gjertz, 1987; Lydersen et al., 
1987; Lydersen and Smith, 1989; Lydersen and Ryg, 1990; Lydersen, 
1998). When lack of snow cover has forced birthing to occur in the 
open, some studies have reported that nearly 100 percent of pups died 
from predation (Kumlien, 1879; Lydersen et al., 1987; Lydersen and 
Smith, 1989; Smith et al., 1991; Smith and Lydersen, 1991). The high 
fidelity to birthing sites exhibited by ringed seals also makes them 
more susceptible to localized degradation of snow cover (Kelly et al., 
2010b).
    Increased rain[hyphen]on[hyphen]snow events during the late winter 
also negatively affect ringed seal recruitment by damaging or 
eliminating snow[hyphen]covered birth lairs, increasing exposure and 
the risk of hypothermia, and facilitating predation by polar bears and 
other predators. Stirling and Smith (2004) documented the collapse of 
subnivean lairs during unseasonal rains near southeastern Baffin Island 
and the subsequent exposure of ringed seals to hypothermia.

[[Page 76710]]

They surmised that most of the pups that survived exposure to cold were 
eventually killed by polar bears, Arctic foxes, or possibly gulls. 
Stirling and Smith (2004) postulated that, should early season rain 
become regular and widespread in the future, mortality of ringed seal 
pups will increase, especially in more southerly parts of their range.
Potential Impacts of Projected Ice and Snow Cover Changes on Ringed 
Seals
    As discussed above, ringed seals divide their time between foraging 
in the water, and reproducing and molting out of the water, where they 
are especially vulnerable to predation. Females must nurse their pups 
for 1-2 months, and the small pups are vulnerable to cold temperatures 
and avian and mammalian predators on the ice, especially during the 
nursing period. Thus, a specific habitat requirement for ringed seals 
is adequate snow for the occupation of subnivean lairs, especially in 
spring when pups are born and nursed.
    Northern Hemisphere snow cover has declined in recent decades and 
spring melt times have become earlier (ACIA, 2005). In most areas of 
the Arctic Ocean, snow melt advanced 1-6 weeks from 1979-2007. 
Throughout most of the ringed seal's range, snow melt occurred within a 
couple of weeks of weaning. Thus, in the past three decades, snow melts 
in many areas have been pre[hyphen]dating weaning. Shifts in the timing 
of reproduction by other pinnipeds in response to changes in food 
availability have been documented. However, the ability of ringed seals 
to adapt to earlier snow melts by advancing the timing of reproduction 
will be limited by snow depths. As discussed above, over most of the 
Arctic Ocean, snow cover reaches its maximal depth in May, but most of 
that accumulation takes place in autumn. It is therefore unlikely that 
snow depths for birth lair formation would be improved earlier in the 
spring. In addition, the pace at which snow melts are advancing is 
rapid relative to the generation time of ringed seals, further 
challenging the potential for an adaptive response.
    Snow drifts to 45 cm or more are needed for excavation and 
maintenance of simple lairs, and birth lairs require depths of 50 to 65 
cm or more (Smith and Stirling, 1975; Lydersen and Gjertz, 1986; Kelly, 
1988; Furgal et al., 1996; Lydersen, 1998; Lukin et al., 2006). Such 
drifts typically only occur where average snow depths are at least 20-
30 cm (on flat ice) and where drifting has taken place along pressure 
ridges or ice hummocks (Hammill and Smith, 1991; Lydersen and Ryg, 
1991; Smith and Lydersen, 1991; Ferguson et al., 2005). We therefore 
considered areas forecasted to have less than 20 cm average snow depth 
in April to be inadequate for the formation of ringed seal birth lairs.
    Arctic ringed seal: The depth and duration of snow cover is 
projected to decrease throughout the range of Arctic ringed seals 
within this century. Whether ringed seals will continue to move north 
with retreating ice over the deeper, less productive Arctic Basin 
waters and whether forage species that they prey on will also move 
north is uncertain and speculative (see additional discussion below). 
Initially, it is possible that impacts will be somewhat ameliorated if 
the subspecies' range retracts northward with its sea ice habitats. By 
2100, however, April snow cover is forecasted to become inadequate for 
the formation and occupation of ringed seal birth lairs over much of 
the subspecies' range. Thus, even if the range of the Arctic ringed 
seal contracts northward, by 2100 April snow cover suitable for birth 
lairs is expected to be limited to a portion of the central Arctic, 
most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, and a few other small isolated 
areas. The projected decreases in ice and, especially, snow cover are 
expected to lead to increased pup mortality from premature weaning, 
hypothermia, and predation.
    Okhotsk ringed seal: Based on temperature proxies (which were used 
because the climate models did not meet the performance criteria for 
projecting sea ice), ice is expected to persist in the Sea of Okhotsk 
through the onset of pupping in March through the end of this century. 
Ice suitable for pupping and nursing likely will be limited to the 
northernmost portions of the sea, as ice is likely to be limited to 
that region in April by the end of the century. The snow cover 
projections suggest that snow depths may already be inadequate for 
lairs in the Sea of Okhotsk, and most Okhotsk ringed seals apparently 
now give birth on pack ice in the lee of ice hummocks. However, it 
appears unlikely that this behavior could mitigate the threats posed by 
the expected decreases in sea ice. The Sea of Okhotsk is bounded to the 
north by land, which will limit the ability of Okhotsk ringed seals to 
respond to deteriorating sea ice and snow conditions by shifting their 
range northward. Some Okhotsk ringed seals have been reported on 
terrestrial resting sites during the ice-free season, but these sites 
provide inferior pupping and nursing habitat. Within the foreseeable 
future, the projected decreases in sea ice habitat suitable for 
pupping, nursing, and molting in the Sea of Okhotsk are expected to 
lead to reduced abundance and productivity.
    Baltic and Ladoga ringed seals: The considerable reductions in ice 
extent forecasted by mid-century, coupled with deteriorating snow 
conditions, are expected to substantially alter the habitats of Baltic 
ringed seals. Climate forecasts for northern Europe also suggest 
reduced ice and snow cover for Lake Ladoga within this century. These 
habitat changes are expected to lead to decreased survival of pups (due 
to hypothermia, predation, and premature weaning) and considerable 
declines in the abundance of these subspecies in the foreseeable 
future. Although Baltic and Ladoga ringed seals have been reported 
using terrestrial resting sites when ice is absent, these sites provide 
inferior pupping and nursing habitat. As sea ice and snow conditions 
deteriorate, Baltic ringed seals will be limited in their ability to 
respond by shifting their range northward because the Baltic Sea is 
bounded to the north by land; and the landlocked seal population in 
Lake Ladoga will be unable to shift its range.
Impacts on Ringed Seals Related to Changes in Ocean Conditions
    Ocean acidification is an ongoing process whereby chemical 
reactions occur that reduce both seawater pH and the concentration of 
carbonate ions when CO2 is absorbed by seawater. Results 
from global ocean CO2 surveys over the past two decades have 
shown that ocean acidification is a predictable consequence of rising 
atmospheric CO2 levels. The process of ocean acidification 
has long been recognized, but the ecological implications of such 
chemical changes have only recently begun to be appreciated. The waters 
of the Arctic and adjacent seas are among the most vulnerable to ocean 
acidification. Seawater chemistry measurements in the Baltic Sea 
suggest that this sea is equally vulnerable to acidification as the 
Arctic. We are not aware of specific acidification studies in Lake 
Ladoga. Fresh water systems, however, are much less buffered than ocean 
waters and are likely to experience even larger changes in 
acidification levels than marine systems. The most likely impact of 
ocean acidification on ringed seals will be at lower tropic levels on 
which the species' prey depends. Cascading effects are likely both in 
the marine and freshwater environments. Our limited understanding of 
planktonic and benthic calcifiers in the Arctic (e.g., even their 
baseline geographical

[[Page 76711]]

distributions) means that future changes will be difficult to detect 
and evaluate.
    Warming water temperatures and decreasing ice likely will result in 
a contraction in the range of Arctic cod, a primary prey of ringed 
seals. The same changes will lead to colonization of the Arctic Ocean 
by more southerly species, including potential prey, predators, and 
competitors. The outcome of new competitive interactions cannot be 
specified, but as sea-ice specialists, ringed seals may be at a 
disadvantage in competition with generalists in an ice-diminished 
Arctic. Prey biomass may be reduced as a consequence of increased 
freshwater input and loss of sea ice habitat for amphipods and 
copepods. On the other hand, overall pelagic productivity may increase.
Summary of Factor A Analysis
    Climate models consistently project overall diminishing sea ice and 
snow cover at least through the current century, with regional 
variation in the timing and severity of those losses. Increasing 
atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, including 
CO2, will drive climate warming and increase acidification 
of the ringed seal's ocean and lake habitats. The impact of ocean 
warming and acidification on ringed seals is expected to be primarily 
through changes in community composition. The precise extent and timing 
of these changes is uncertain, yet the overall trend is clear: Ringed 
seals will face an increasing degree of habitat modification through 
the foreseeable future.
    Diminishing ice and snow cover are the greatest challenges to 
persistence of all of the ringed seal subspecies. While winter 
precipitation is forecasted to increase in a warming Arctic, the 
duration of ice cover is projected to be substantially reduced, and the 
net effect will be lower snow accumulation on the ice. Within the 
century, snow cover adequate for the formation and occupation of birth 
lairs is forecasted to occur in only parts of the Canadian Arctic 
Archipelago, a portion of the central Arctic, and a few small isolated 
areas in other regions. Without the protection of lairs, ringed seals, 
especially newborns, are vulnerable to freezing and predation. We 
conclude that the ongoing and projected changes in sea ice habitat pose 
significant threats to the persistence of each of the five subspecies 
of the ringed seal and are likely to curtail the range of the species 
substantially within the foreseeable future.

B. Overutilization for Commercial, Subsistence, Recreational, 
Scientific, or Educational Purposes

    Ringed seals have been hunted by humans for millennia and remain a 
fundamental subsistence resource for many northern coastal communities 
today. Ringed seals were also harvested commercially in large numbers 
during the 20th century, which led to the depletion of their stocks in 
many parts of their range. Commercial harvests in the Sea of Okhotsk 
and predator-control harvests in the Baltic Sea and Lake Ladoga caused 
population declines in the past, but have since been restricted. 
Although subsistence harvest of the Arctic subspecies is currently 
substantial in some regions, harvest levels presently seem sustainable. 
Climate change is likely to alter patterns of subsistence harvest of 
marine mammals by changing their local densities or distributions in 
relation to hunting communities. Predictions of the impacts of climate 
change on subsistence hunting pressure are constrained by the 
complexity of interacting variables and imprecision of climate and sea 
ice models at small scales. Accurate information on both harvest levels 
and species' abundance and trends will be needed in order to assess the 
future impacts of hunting as well as to respond appropriately to 
potential climate-induced changes in populations. Recreational, 
scientific, and educational uses of ringed seals are minimal and are 
not expected to increase significantly in the foreseeable future. We 
conclude that there is no evidence that overutilization of ringed seals 
is occurring at present.

C. Diseases, Parasites, and Predation

    Ringed seals have co-evolved with numerous parasites and diseases, 
and those relationships are presumed to be stable. Evidence of 
distemper virus, for example, has been reported in Arctic ringed seals, 
but there is no evidence of population-level impacts to ringed seal 
abundance or productivity. After the proposed listing rule was 
published, the occurrence of an elevated number of sick or dead ringed 
seals in the Arctic and Bering Strait regions of Alaska beginning in 
July 2011 led to the declaration of an unusual mortality event (UME) by 
NMFS under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) on December 20, 
2011. The underlying cause of this UME is unknown and remains under 
focused expert investigation. Abiotic and biotic changes to ringed seal 
habitat potentially could lead to exposure to new pathogens or new 
levels of virulence, but we continue to consider the potential threats 
to ringed seals from disease as low.
    Ringed seals are most commonly preyed upon by Arctic foxes and 
polar bears, and less commonly by other terrestrial carnivores, sharks, 
and killer whales (Orcinus orca). When ringed seal pups are forced out 
of subnivean lairs prematurely because of low snow accumulation and/or 
early melts, gulls and ravens also successfully prey on them. Avian 
predation is facilitated not only by lack of sufficient snow cover but 
also by conditions favoring influxes of birds. Lydersen and Smith 
(1989) pointed out that the small size of newborn ringed seals, coupled 
with their prolonged nursing period, make them vulnerable to predation 
by birds and likely set a southern limit to their distribution.
    Ringed seals and bearded seals are the primary prey of polar bears. 
Polar bear predation on ringed seals is most successful in moving 
offshore ice, often along floe edges and rarely in ice-free waters. 
Polar bears also successfully hunt ringed seals on stable shorefast ice 
by catching animals when they surface to breathe and when they occupy 
lairs. Hammill and Smith (1991) further noted that polar bear predation 
on ringed seal pups increased 4-fold in a year when average snow depths 
in their study area decreased from 23 to 10 cm. They concluded that 
while a high proportion of pups born each year are lost to predation, 
``without the protection provided by the subnivean lair, pup mortality 
would be much higher.''
    The distribution of Arctic foxes broadly overlaps with that of 
Arctic ringed seals. Arctic foxes prey on newborn seals by tunneling 
into the birth lairs. The range of the red fox overlaps with that of 
the Okhotsk, Baltic, and Ladoga subspecies, and on rare occasion red 
foxes also prey on newborn ringed seals in lairs.
    High rates of predation on ringed seal pups have been associated 
with anomalous weather events that caused subnivean lairs to collapse 
or melt before pups were weaned. Thus, declining snow depths and 
duration of snow cover during the period when ringed seal pups are born 
and nursed can be expected to lead to increased predation on ringed 
seal pups. We conclude that the threat posed to ringed seals by 
predation is currently moderate, but predation risk is expected to 
increase as snow and sea ice conditions change with a warming climate.

[[Page 76712]]

D. Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms

    As noted above in the discussion of Factor A, a primary concern 
about the conservation status of the ringed seal stems from the 
likelihood that its sea ice habitat has been modified by the warming 
climate and, more so, that the scientific consensus projections are for 
continued and perhaps accelerated warming in the foreseeable future 
combined with modification of habitat by ocean acidification. Current 
mechanisms do not effectively regulate GHG emissions, which are 
contributing to global climate change and associated modifications to 
ringed seal habitat. The projections we used to assess risks from GHG 
emissions were based on the assumption that no new regulation will take 
place (the underlying IPCC emissions scenarios were all ``non-
mitigated'' scenarios). Therefore, the inadequacy of mechanisms to 
regulate GHG emissions is already included in our risk assessment, and 
contributes to the risks posed to ringed seals by these emissions.
    Based on questionnaire and interview data obtained from fishermen 
at Lake Ladoga, Verevkin et al. (2006, 2010) concluded that annual 
bycatch mortality of Ladoga ringed seals has been substantial in recent 
years and that mitigation measures are needed. Thus inadequacy of 
existing mechanisms to regulate bycatch of Ladoga ringed seals is 
contributing to the severity of the threat posed by fisheries 
interactions with that subspecies, and compounds the effects of threats 
induced by climate change discussed above.

E. Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting the Species' Continued 
Existence

Pollution and Contaminants
    Contaminants research on ringed seals is extensive and has been 
conducted in most parts of the species' range (with the exception of 
the Sea of Okhotsk), particularly throughout the Arctic environment 
where ringed seals are an important diet item in coastal human 
communities. Pollutants such as organochlorine (OC) compounds and heavy 
metals have been found in all of the subspecies of ringed seal (with 
the exception of the Okhotsk ringed seal). The variety, sources, and 
transport mechanisms of contaminants vary across ringed seal 
ecosystems. Statistical analysis of OC compounds in marine mammals has 
shown that, for most OCs, the European Arctic is more contaminated than 
the Canadian and U.S. Arctic.
    Reduced productivity in the Baltic ringed seal in recent decades 
resulted from impaired fertility that was associated with pollutants. 
High levels of DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) and PCBs 
(polychlorinated biphenyls) were found in Baltic (Bothnian Bay) ringed 
seals in the 1960s and 1970s, and PCB levels were correlated with 
reproductive failure. More recently, PFOSs (perfluorooctane sulfonate; 
a perfluorinated contaminant or PFC) were reported as 15 times greater 
in Baltic ringed seals than in Arctic ringed seals.
    Present and future impacts of contaminants on ringed seal 
populations warrant further study. Climate change has the potential to 
increase the transport of pollutants from lower latitudes to the 
Arctic, highlighting the importance of continued monitoring of ringed 
seal contaminant levels. The BRT considered the potential threat posed 
to ringed seals from contaminants as of low to moderate significance, 
with the least threat identified for Arctic ringed seals and the 
greatest for Baltic ringed seals.
Oil and Gas Activities
    Extensive oil and gas reserves coupled with rising global demand 
make it very likely that oil and gas development activity will increase 
throughout the U.S. Arctic and internationally in the future. Climate 
change is expected to enhance marine access to offshore oil and gas 
reserves by reducing sea ice extent, thickness, and seasonal duration, 
thereby improving ship access to these resources around the margins of 
the Arctic Basin. Oil and gas exploration, development, and production 
activities include, but are not limited to: Seismic surveys; 
exploratory, delineation, and production drilling operations; 
construction of artificial islands, causeways, ice roads, shore-based 
facilities, and pipelines; and vessel and aircraft operations. These 
activities have the potential to affect ringed seals primarily through 
noise, physical disturbance, and pollution, particularly in the event 
of a large oil spill or blowout.
    Within the range of the Arctic ringed seal, offshore oil and gas 
exploration and production activities are currently underway in the 
United States, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. In the United 
States, oil and gas activities have been conducted off the coast of 
Alaska since the 1970s, with most of the activity occurring in the 
Beaufort Sea. Although five exploratory wells have previously been 
drilled in the Chukchi Sea, no oil fields have been developed or 
brought into production. Shell plans to drill up to three wells during 
2012 at several locations in the northeast Chukchi Sea. Shell also 
plans to drill offshore in the Beaufort Sea in 2012 near Camden Bay. No 
offshore oil or gas fields are currently in development or production 
in the Bering Sea.
    About 80 percent of the oil and 99 percent of the gas produced in 
the Arctic comes from Russia (AMAP, 2007). With over 75 percent of 
known Arctic oil, over 90 percent of known Arctic gas, and vast 
estimates of undiscovered oil and gas reserves, Russia will likely 
continue to be the dominant producer of Arctic oil and gas in the 
future (AMAP, 2007). Oil and gas developments in the Kara and Barents 
Seas began in 1992, and large-scale production activities were 
initiated during 1998-2000. Oil and gas production activities are 
expected to grow in the western Siberian provinces and Kara and Barents 
Seas in the future. Recently there has also been renewed interest in 
the Russian Chukchi Sea, as new evidence emerges to support the notion 
that the region may contain world-class oil and gas reserves. In the 
Sea of Okhotsk, oil and natural gas operations are active off the 
northeastern coast of Sakhalin Island, and future developments are 
planned in the western Kamchatka and Magadan regions.
    A major project underway in the Baltic Sea is the Nord Stream 
1,200-km gas line, which will be the longest subsea natural gas 
pipeline in the world. Concerns have been expressed about the potential 
disturbance of World War II landmines and chemical toxins in the 
sediment during construction. There are also concerns about potential 
leaks and spills from the pipeline and impacts on the Baltic Sea marine 
environment once the pipeline is operational. Circulation of waters in 
the Baltic Sea is limited and any contaminants may not be flushed 
efficiently.
    Large oil spills or blowouts are considered to be the greatest 
threat of oil and gas exploration activities in the marine environment. 
In contrast to spills on land, large spills at sea are difficult to 
contain and may spread over hundreds or thousands of kilometers. 
Responding to a spill in the Arctic environment would be particularly 
challenging. The U.S. Arctic has very little infrastructure to support 
oil spill response, with few roads and no major port facilities. 
Reaching a spill site and responding effectively would be especially 
difficult, if not impossible, in winter when weather can be severe and 
daylight extremely limited. Oil spills under ice would be the most

[[Page 76713]]

challenging because industry and government have little experience 
containing or effectively recovering spilled oil in such conditions. 
The difficulties experienced in stopping and containing the blowout at 
the Deepwater Horizon well in the Gulf of Mexico, where environmental 
conditions and response preparedness are comparatively good (but waters 
are much deeper than the Arctic continental shelf), point toward even 
greater challenges of attempting a similar feat in a much more 
environmentally severe and geographically remote location.
    Although planning, management, and use of best practices can help 
reduce risks and impacts, the history of oil and gas activities 
indicates that accidents cannot be eliminated. Tanker spills, pipeline 
leaks, and oil blowouts are likely to occur in the future, even under 
the most stringent regulatory and safety systems. In the Sea of 
Okhotsk, an accident at an oil production complex resulted in a large 
(3.5-ton) spill in 1999, and in winter 2009, an unknown quantity of oil 
associated with a tanker fouled 3 km of coastline and hundreds of birds 
in Aniva Bay (Sakhalin Island). In the Arctic, a blowout at an offshore 
platform in the Ekofisk oil field in the North Sea in 1977 released 
more than 200,000 barrels of oil.
    Researchers have suggested that pups of ice-associated seals may be 
particularly vulnerable to fouling of their dense lanugo coats. Adults, 
juveniles, and weaned young of the year rely on blubber for insulation, 
so effects of oiling on their thermoregulation are expected to be 
minimal. A variety of other acute effects of oil exposure have been 
shown to reduce seals' health and possibly survival. Direct ingestion 
of oil, ingestion of contaminated prey, or inhalation of hydrocarbon 
vapors can cause serious health effects including death.
    The BRT considered the threat posed to ringed seals by disturbance, 
injury, or mortality from oil spills, and/or other discharges, as of 
low to moderate significance, with the greatest threat identified for 
Okhotsk and Baltic ringed seals.
Commercial Fisheries Interactions and Bycatch
    Commercial fisheries may affect ringed seals through direct 
interactions (i.e., incidental take or bycatch) and indirectly through 
competition for prey resources and other impacts on prey populations. 
NMFS has access to estimates of Arctic ringed seal bycatch only for 
commercial fisheries that operate in Alaska waters. Based on data from 
2002-2006, there has been an annual average of 0.46 Arctic ringed seal 
mortalities incidental to commercial fishing operations. NAMMCO (2002) 
stated that in the North Atlantic region Arctic ringed seals are seldom 
caught in fishing gear because their distribution does not coincide 
with intensive fisheries in most areas. We could find no information 
regarding ringed seal bycatch levels in the Sea of Okhotsk; however, 
given the intensive levels of commercial fishing that occur in this 
sea, bycatch of ringed seals likely occurs there. The BRT considered 
the threat posed to Okhotsk ringed seals from physical disturbance 
associated with the combined factors of oil and gas development, 
shipping, and commercial fisheries moderately significant.
    Drowning in fishing gear has been reported as one of the most 
significant mortality factors for seals in the Baltic Sea, especially 
for young seals. There are no reliable estimates of seal bycatch in 
this sea, and existing estimates are known to be low in many areas, 
making risk assessment difficult. Based on monitoring of 5 percent of 
the commercial fishing effort in the Swedish coastal fisheries, bycatch 
of Baltic ringed seals was estimated at 50 seals in 2004. In Finland, 
it was estimated that about 70 Baltic ringed seals were caught by 
fishing gear annually during the period 1997-1999. There are no 
estimates of seal bycatch from Lithuanian, Estonian, or Russian waters 
of the Baltic. It has been suggested that decreases in the use of the 
most harmful types of nets (i.e., gillnets and unprotected trap nets), 
along with the development of seal-proof fishing gear, may have 
resulted in a decline in Baltic ringed seal bycatch (Ministry of 
Agriculture and Forestry, 2007).
    It has been estimated that 200-400 Ladoga ringed seals died 
annually in fishing gear during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fishing 
patterns reportedly changed since then, and in the late 1990s fishing 
was not regarded to be a threat to Ladoga ringed seal populations, 
although it was suggested that it could become so should market 
conditions improve (Sipil[auml] and Hyv[auml]rinen, 1998). Based on 
interviews with fishermen in Lake Ladoga, Verevkin et al. (2006) 
reported that at least 483 Ladoga ringed seals were killed in fishing 
gear in 2003, even though official records only recorded 60 cases of 
bycatch. Further, Verevkin et al. (2010) reported questionnaire 
responses by fishermen that indicated annual bycatch of Ladoga ringed 
seals caught in fishing nets has been substantial in recent years.
    For indirect interactions, we note that commercial fisheries target 
a number of known ringed seal prey species such as walleye pollock 
(Theragra chalcogramma), Pacific cod, herring (Clupea sp.), and 
capelin. These fisheries may affect ringed seals indirectly through 
reductions in prey biomass and through other fishing mediated changes 
in ringed seal prey species.
Shipping
    The reduction in Arctic sea ice that has occurred in recent years 
has renewed interest in using the Arctic Ocean as a potential waterway 
for coastal, regional, and trans-Arctic marine operations. Climate 
models predict that the warming trend in the Arctic will accelerate, 
causing the ice to begin melting earlier in the spring and resume 
freezing later in the fall, resulting in an expansion of potential 
shipping routes and lengthening the potential navigation season.
    The most significant risk posed by shipping activities in the 
Arctic is the accidental or illegal discharge of oil or other toxic 
substances carried by ships, due to their immediate and potentially 
long-term effects on individual animals, populations, food webs, and 
the environment. Shipping activities can also affect ringed seals 
directly through noise and physical disturbance (e.g., icebreaking 
vessels), as well as indirectly through ship emissions and the 
possibility of introducing exotic species that may affect ringed seal 
food webs.
    Current and future shipping activities in the Arctic pose varying 
levels of threats to ringed seals depending on the type and intensity 
of the shipping activity and its degree of spatial and temporal overlap 
with ringed seal habitats. These factors are inherently difficult to 
predict, making threat assessment highly uncertain. However, given what 
is currently known about ringed seal populations and shipping activity 
in the Arctic, some general assessments can be made. Arctic ringed seal 
densities are variable and depend on many factors; however, they are 
often reported to be widely distributed in relatively low densities and 
rarely congregate in large numbers. This may help mitigate the risks of 
more localized shipping threats (e.g., oil spills or physical 
disturbance), since the impacts from such events would be less likely 
to affect large numbers of seals. The fact that nearly all shipping 
activity in the Arctic (with the exception of icebreaking) purposefully 
avoids areas of ice and primarily occurs during the ice-free or low-ice 
seasons also helps to

[[Page 76714]]

mitigate the risks associated with shipping to ringed seals, since they 
are closely associated with ice at nearly all times of the year. 
Icebreakers pose special risks to ringed seals because they are capable 
of operating year-round in all but the heaviest ice conditions and are 
often used to escort other types of vessels (e.g., tankers and bulk 
carriers) through ice-covered areas. If icebreaking activities increase 
in the Arctic in the future as expected, the likelihood of negative 
impacts (e.g., oil spills, pollution, noise, disturbance, and habitat 
alteration) occurring in ice-covered areas where ringed seals occur 
will likely also increase.
    Though few details are available regarding shipping levels in the 
Sea of Okhotsk, resource development over the last decade stands out as 
a likely significant contributor. Relatively high levels of shipping 
are needed to support present oil and gas operations. In addition, 
large-scale commercial fishing occurs in many parts of the sea. Winter 
shipping activities in the southern Sea of Okhotsk are expected to 
increase considerably as oil and gas production pushes the development 
and use of new classes of icebreaking ships, thereby increasing the 
potential for shipping accidents and oil spills in the ice-covered 
regions of this sea.
    The Baltic Sea is one of the most heavily trafficked shipping areas 
in the world, with more than 2,000 large ships (including about 200 oil 
tankers) sailing on its waters on an average day. Additionally, ferry 
lines, fishing boats, and cruise ships frequent the Baltic Sea. Both 
the number and size of ships (especially oil tankers) have grown in 
recent years, and the amount of oil transported in the Baltic 
(especially from the Gulf of Finland) has increased significantly since 
2000. The risk of oil exposure for seals living in the Baltic Sea is 
considered to be greatest in the Gulf of Finland, where oil shipping 
routes pass through ringed seal pupping areas as well as close to rocks 
and islets where seals sometimes haul out. Icebreaking during the 
winter is considered to be the most significant marine traffic factor 
for seals in the Baltic Sea, especially in the Bothnian Bay.
    Lake Ladoga is connected to the Baltic Sea and other bodies of 
water via a network of rivers and canals that are used as waterways to 
transport people, resources, and cargo throughout the Baltic region. 
However, reviews of the biology and conservation of Ladoga ringed seals 
have not identified shipping-related activities (other than accidental 
bycatch in fishing gear) as being important risks to the conservation 
status of this subspecies.
    The threats posed from shipping activity in the Sea of Okhotsk, 
Baltic Sea, and Lake Ladoga and are largely the same as they are for 
the Arctic. Two obvious but important distinctions between these 
regions and the Arctic are that these bodies of water are 
geographically smaller and more confined than many areas where the 
Arctic subspecies lives, and they contain much smaller populations of 
ringed seals. Therefore, shipping and ringed seals are more likely to 
overlap spatially in these regions, and a single accident (e.g., a 
large oil spill) could potentially impact these smaller populations 
severely. However, the lack of specific information on threats and 
impacts (now and in the future) makes threat assessment in these 
regions uncertain. More information is needed to adequately assess the 
risks of shipping to ringed seals. The BRT considered the threat posed 
to Okhotsk, Baltic, and Ladoga ringed seals from physical disturbance 
associated with the combined factors of oil and gas development, 
shipping, and commercial fisheries moderately significant, while also 
noting that drowning of seals in fishing nets and disturbance from 
human activities are specific conservation concerns for Ladoga ringed 
seals.
Summary of Factor E
    We find that the threats posed by pollutants, oil and gas 
activities, fisheries, and shipping do not individually or collectively 
place the Arctic or Okhotsk subspecies of ringed seals at risk of 
becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. We recognize, however, 
that the significance of these threats would likely increase for 
populations diminished by the effects of climate change or other 
threats.
    Reduced productivity in the Baltic Sea ringed seal in recent 
decades resulted from impaired fertility that was associated with 
pollutants. We do not have any information to conclude that there are 
currently population-level effects on Baltic ringed seals from 
contaminant exposure. We find that the threats posed by pollutants, 
petroleum development, commercial fisheries, and increased ship traffic 
do not individually or collectively pose a significant risk to the 
persistence of the Baltic ringed seals. We recognize, however, that the 
significance of these threats would likely increase for populations 
diminished by the effects of climate change or other threats. We also 
note that, particularly given the elevated contaminant load in the 
Baltic Sea, continued efforts are necessary to ensure that population-
level effects from contaminant exposure do not recur in Baltic ringed 
seals in the future.
    Drowning of seals in fishing gear and disturbance by human 
activities are conservation concerns for ringed seals in Lake Ladoga 
and could exacerbate the effects of climate change on this seal 
population. Drowning in fishing gear is also one of the most 
significant sources of mortality for ringed seals in the Baltic Sea. 
Although we currently do not have any data to conclude that these 
threats are having population-level effects on Baltic ringed seals, 
reported bycatch mortality in Lake Ladoga appears to pose a significant 
threat to that subspecies, particularly when combined with the effects 
of climate change on ringed seal habitat.

Analysis of Demographic Risks

    Threats to a species' long-term persistence are manifested 
demographically as risks to its abundance, productivity, spatial 
structure and connectivity, and genetic and ecological diversity. These 
demographic risks provide the most direct indices or proxies of 
extinction risk. A species at very low levels of abundance and with few 
populations will be less tolerant to environmental variation, 
catastrophic events, genetic processes, demographic stochasticity, 
ecological interactions, and other processes. A rate of productivity 
that is unstable or declining over a long period of time can indicate 
poor resiliency to future environmental change. A species that is not 
widely distributed across a variety of well-connected habitats is at 
increased risk of extinction due to environmental perturbations, 
including catastrophic events. A species that has lost locally-adapted 
genetic and ecological diversity may lack the raw resources necessary 
to exploit a wide array of environments and endure short- and long-term 
environmental changes.
    The key factors limiting the viability of all five ringed seal 
subspecies are the forecasted reductions in ice extent and, in 
particular, depths and duration of snow cover on ice. Early snow melts 
already are evident in much of the species' range. Increasingly late 
ice formation in autumn is forecasted, contributing to expectations of 
substantial decreases in snow accumulation. The ringed seal's specific 
requirement for habitats with adequate spring snow cover is manifested 
in the pups' low tolerance for exposure to wet, cold conditions and 
their vulnerability to predation. Premature failure of the snow cover 
has caused high mortality due to freezing and predation. Climate

[[Page 76715]]

warming will result in increasingly early snow melts, exposing 
vulnerable ringed seal pups to predators and hypothermia.
    The BRT considered the current risks to the persistence of Arctic, 
Okhotsk, Baltic, and Ladoga ringed seals as low to moderate, with the 
Ladoga ringed seal receiving the highest scores. Within the foreseeable 
future, the BRT judged the risks to Arctic ringed seal persistence to 
be moderate (diversity and abundance) to high (productivity and spatial 
structure). As noted above, the impacts to Arctic ringed seals may be 
somewhat ameliorated initially if the subspecies' range retracts 
northward with sea ice habitats, but by the end of the century snow 
depths are projected to be insufficient for lair formation and 
maintenance throughout much of the subspecies' range, including the 
potentially retracted northward one. The BRT also judged the risks to 
persistence of the Okhotsk and Baltic ringed seal in the foreseeable 
future to be moderate (diversity) to high (abundance, productivity, and 
spatial structure). Okhotsk and Baltic ringed seals will have limited 
opportunity to shift their range northward because the sea ice will 
retract toward land.
    Risks to Ladoga ringed seal persistence within the foreseeable 
future were judged by the BRT to be moderate (diversity), or high to 
very high (abundance, productivity, and spatial structure). As noted 
above, Ladoga ringed seals are a landlocked population that will be 
unable to shift their range in response to the pronounced degradation 
of ice and snow habitats forecasted to occur.

Conservation Efforts

    When considering the listing of a species, section 4(b)(1)(A) of 
the ESA requires NMFS to consider efforts by any State, foreign nation, 
or political subdivision of a State or foreign nation to protect the 
species. Such efforts would include measures by Native American tribes 
and organizations, local governments, and private organizations. Also, 
Federal, tribal, state, and foreign recovery actions (16 U.S.C. 
1533(f)), and Federal consultation requirements (16 U.S.C. 1536) 
constitute conservation measures. In addition to identifying these 
efforts, under the ESA and our Policy on the Evaluation of Conservation 
Efforts (68 FR 15100; March 28, 2003), we must evaluate the certainty 
of implementing the conservation efforts and the certainty that the 
conservation efforts will be effective on the basis of whether the 
effort or plan establishes specific conservation objectives, identifies 
the necessary steps to reduce threats or factors for decline, includes 
quantifiable performance measures for monitoring compliance and 
effectiveness, incorporates the principles of adaptive management, and 
is likely to improve the species' viability at the time of the listing 
determination.

International Conservation Efforts Specifically to Protect Ringed Seals

    Baltic ringed seals: (1) Some protected areas in Sweden, Finland, 
the Russian Federation, and Estonia include Baltic ringed seal habitat; 
(2) the Baltic ringed seal is included in the Red Book of the Russian 
Federation as ``Category 2'' (decreasing abundance), is classified as 
``Endangered'' in the Red Data Book of Estonia, and is listed as ``Near 
Threatened'' on the Finnish and Swedish Red Lists; and (3) Helsinki 
Commission (HELCOM) recommendation 27-28/2 (2006) on conservation of 
seals in the Baltic Sea established a seal expert group to address and 
coordinate seal conservation and management across the Baltic Sea 
region. This expert group has made progress toward completing a set of 
related tasks identified in the HELCOM recommendation, including 
coordinating development of national management plans and developing 
monitoring programs. The national red lists and red data books noted 
above highlight the conservation status of listed species and can 
inform conservation planning and prioritization.
    Ladoga ringed seals: (1) In May 2009, Ladoga Skerries National 
Park, which will encompass northern and northwest Lake Ladoga, was 
added to the Russian Federation's list of protected areas to be 
established; and (2) the Ladoga ringed seal is included in the Red Data 
Books of the Russian Federation, the Leningrad Region, and Karelia.

International Agreements

    The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural 
Resources (IUCN) Red List identifies and documents those species 
believed by its reviewers to be most in need of conservation attention 
if global extinction rates are to be reduced, and is widely recognized 
as the most comprehensive, apolitical global approach for evaluating 
the conservation status of plant and animal species. In order to 
produce Red Lists of threatened species worldwide, the IUCN Species 
Survival Commission draws on a network of scientists and partner 
organizations, which uses a standardized assessment process to 
determine species' risks of extinction. However, it should be noted 
that the IUCN Red List assessment criteria differ from the listing 
criteria provided by the ESA. The ringed seal is currently classified 
as a species of ``Least Concern'' on the IUCN Red List. The Red List 
assessment notes that, given the risks posed to the ringed seal by 
climate change, the conservation status of all ringed seal subspecies 
should be reassessed within a decade. The European Red List compiles 
assessments of the conservation status of European species according to 
IUCN red listing guidelines. The assessment for the ringed seal 
currently classifies the Ladoga ringed seal as ``Vulnerable.'' The 
Baltic ringed seal is classified as a species of ``Least Concern'' on 
the European Red List, with the caveats that population numbers remain 
low and that there are significant conservation concerns in some part 
of the Baltic Sea. Similar to inclusion in national red lists and red 
data books, these listings highlight the conservation status of listed 
species and can inform conservation planning and prioritization.
    The Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural 
Habitats (Bern Convention) is a regional treaty on conservation. 
Current parties to the Bern Convention within the range of the ringed 
seal include Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, and Latvia. The 
agreement calls for signatories to provide special protection for fauna 
species listed in Appendix II (species to be strictly protected) and 
Appendix III to the convention (species for which any exploitation is 
to be regulated). The Ladoga ringed seal is listed under Appendix II, 
and other ringed seals fall under Appendix III. Hunting of Ladoga 
ringed seals has been prohibited since 1980, and hunting of Baltic 
ringed seals has also been suspended (although Finland permitted the 
harvest of small numbers of ringed seals in the Bothnian Bay beginning 
in 2010).
    The provisions of the Council of the European Union's Directive 92/
43/EEC on the Conservation of Natural Habitats of Wild Fauna and Flora 
(Habitats Directive) are intended to promote the conservation of 
biodiversity in European Union (EU) member countries. EU members meet 
the habitat conservation requirements of the directive by designating 
qualified sites for inclusion in a special conservation areas network 
known as Natura 2000. Current members of the EU within the range of the 
ringed seal include Sweden, Finland, and Estonia. Annex II to the 
Habitats Directive lists species whose conservation is to be 
specifically considered in designating special

[[Page 76716]]

conservation areas, Annex IV identifies species determined to be in 
need of strict protection, and Annex V identifies species whose 
exploitation may require specific management measures to maintain 
favorable conservation status. The Baltic ringed seal is listed in 
Annex II and V, and the Arctic ringed seal is listed in Annex V. Some 
designated Natura 2000 sites include Baltic ringed seal habitat.
    In 2005 the International Maritime Organization (IMO) designated 
the Baltic Sea Area outside of Russian territorial waters as a 
Particularly Sensitive Sea Area (PSSA), which provides a framework 
under IMO's International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution 
from Ships (MARPOL 73/78) for developing internationally agreed upon 
measures to reduce risks posed from maritime shipping activities. To 
date, a maritime traffic separation scheme is the sole protective 
measure associated with the Baltic PSSA. Expansion of Russian oil 
terminals is contributing to a marked increase in oil transport in the 
Baltic Sea; however, the Russian Federation has declined to support the 
Baltic Sea PSSA designation.
    HELCOM's main goal since the Helsinki convention first entered 
force in 1980 has been to address Baltic Sea pollution caused by 
hazardous substances and to restore and safeguard the ecology of the 
Baltic. HELCOM acts as a coordinating body among the nine countries 
with coasts along the Baltic Sea. Activities of HELCOM have led to 
significant reductions in a number of monitored hazardous substances in 
the Baltic Sea. However, pollution caused by hazardous substances 
continues to pose risks.
    The Agreement on Cooperation in Research, Conservation, and 
Management of Marine Mammals in the North Atlantic (North Atlantic 
Marine Mammal Commission [NAMMCO]) was established in 1992 by a 
regional agreement among the governments of Greenland, Iceland, Norway, 
and the Faroe Islands to cooperatively conserve and manage marine 
mammals in the North Atlantic. NAMMCO has provided a forum for the 
exchange of information and coordination among member countries on 
ringed seal research and management.

Domestic U.S. Conservation Efforts

    NMFS is not aware of any formalized conservation efforts for ringed 
seals that have yet to be implemented, or which have recently been 
implemented but have yet to show their effectiveness in removing 
threats to the species. Therefore, we do not need to evaluate any 
domestic conservation efforts under our Policy on Evaluating 
Conservation Efforts (68 FR 15100; March 28, 2003).
    NMFS has established a co-management agreement with the Ice Seal 
Committee (ISC) to conserve and provide co-management of subsistence 
use of ice seals by Alaska Natives. The ISC is an Alaska Native 
Organization dedicated to conserving seal populations, habitat, and 
hunting in order to help preserve native cultures and traditions. The 
ISC co-manages ice seals with NMFS by monitoring subsistence harvest 
and cooperating on needed research and education programs pertaining to 
ice seals. NMFS's National Marine Mammal Laboratory is engaged in an 
active research program for ringed seals. The new information from this 
research will be used to enhance our understanding of the risk factors 
affecting ringed seals, thereby improving our ability to develop 
effective management measures for the species.

Listing Determinations

    We have reviewed the status of the ringed seal, fully considering 
the best scientific and commercial data available, including the status 
review report. We have reviewed threats to these subspecies of the 
ringed seal, as well as other relevant factors, and considered 
conservation efforts and special designations for ringed seals by 
states and foreign nations. In consideration of all of the threats and 
potential threats to ringed seals identified above, the assessment of 
the risks posed by those threats, the possible cumulative impacts, and 
the uncertainty associated with all of these, we draw the following 
conclusions:
    Arctic subspecies: (1) There are no specific estimates of 
population size available for the Arctic subspecies, but most experts 
postulate that the population numbers in the millions. (2) The depth 
and duration of snow cover are forecasted to decrease substantially 
throughout the range of the Arctic ringed seal. Within this century, 
snow cover is forecasted to be inadequate for the formation and 
occupation of birth lairs over most of the subspecies' range. (3) 
Because ringed seals stay with the ice as it annually advances and 
retreats, the southern edge of the ringed seal's range may initially 
shift northward. Whether ringed seals will continue to move north with 
retreating ice over the deeper, less productive Arctic Basin waters and 
whether the species that they prey on will also move north is 
uncertain. (4) The Arctic ringed seal's pupping and nursing seasons are 
adapted to the phenology of ice and snow. The projected decreases in 
sea ice, snow cover, and thermal capacity of birthing lairs will likely 
lead to decreased pup survival. Thus, within the foreseeable future it 
is likely that the number of Arctic ringed seals will decline 
substantially, and they will no longer persist in substantial portions 
of their range. We have determined that the Arctic subspecies of the 
ringed seal is not in danger of extinction throughout all of its range, 
but is likely to become so within the foreseeable future. Therefore, we 
are listing it as threatened.
    Okhotsk subspecies: (1) The best available scientific data suggest 
a conservative estimate of 676,000 ringed seals in the Sea of Okhotsk, 
apparently reduced from historical numbers. It has been estimated that 
the ringed seal population in the Sea of Okhotsk numbered more than one 
million in 1955. (2) Before the end of the current century, ice 
suitable for pupping and nursing is forecasted to be limited to the 
northernmost regions of the Sea of Okhotsk, and projections suggest 
that snow cover may already be inadequate for birth lairs. The Sea of 
Okhotsk is bounded to the north by land, which will limit the ability 
of Okhotsk ringed seals to respond to deteriorating sea ice and snow 
conditions by shifting their range northward. (3) Although some Okhotsk 
ringed seals have been reported resting on island shores during the 
ice-free season, we are not aware of any occurrence of ringed seals 
whelping or nursing young on land. (4) The Okhotsk ringed seal's 
pupping and nursing seasons are adapted to the phenology of ice and 
snow. Decreases in sea ice habitat suitable for pupping, nursing, and 
molting will likely lead to declines in abundance and productivity of 
the Okhotsk subspecies. We have determined that the Okhotsk subspecies 
of the ringed seal is not in danger of extinction throughout its range, 
but is likely to become so within the foreseeable future. Therefore, we 
are listing it as threatened.
    Baltic subspecies: (1) Current estimates of 10,000 Baltic ringed 
seals suggest that the population has been significantly reduced from 
historical numbers. It has been estimated that about 180,000 ringed 
seals inhabited the Baltic Sea in 1900 and that by the 1940s this 
population had been reduced to about 25,000. (2) Reduced productivity 
in the Baltic subspecies in recent decades resulted from impaired 
fertility associated with pollutants. (3) Dramatic reductions in sea 
ice extent are projected by mid-century and beyond in the Baltic Sea, 
coupled with declining depth and insulating properties of snow

[[Page 76717]]

cover on Baltic Sea ice. The Baltic Sea is bounded to the north by 
land, which will limit the ability of Baltic ringed seals to respond to 
deteriorating sea ice and snow conditions by shifting their range 
northward. (4) Although Baltic ringed seals have been reported resting 
on island shores or offshore reefs during the ice-free season, we are 
not aware of any occurrence of ringed seals whelping or nursing young 
on land. (5) The Baltic ringed seal's pupping and nursing seasons are 
adapted to the phenology of ice and snow. The projected substantial 
reductions in sea ice extent and deteriorating snow conditions are 
expected to lead to decreased survival of pups and a substantial 
decline in the abundance of the Baltic subspecies. We have determined 
that the Baltic subspecies of the ringed seal is not in danger of 
extinction throughout all its range, but is likely to become so within 
the foreseeable future. Therefore, we are listing it as threatened.
    Ladoga subspecies: (1) The population size of the ringed seal in 
Lake Ladoga is currently estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 seals, a decrease 
from estimates of 20,000 seals reported for the 1930s, and estimates of 
5,000 to 10,000 seals in the 1960s. (2) Reduced ice and snow cover are 
expected in Lake Ladoga within this century based on regional 
projections. As ice and snow conditions deteriorate, the landlocked 
population of Ladoga ringed seals will be unable to respond by shifting 
its range. (3) Although Ladoga ringed seals have been reported resting 
on rocks and island shores during the ice-free season, we are not aware 
of any occurrence of ringed seals whelping or nursing young on land. 
(4) The Ladoga ringed seal's pupping and nursing seasons are adapted to 
the phenology of ice and snow. Reductions in ice and snow are expected 
to lead to decreased survival of pups and a substantial decline in the 
abundance of this subspecies. (5) Ongoing mortality incidental to 
fishing activities is also a significant conservation concern. Based on 
the substantial threats currently affecting Ladoga ringed seals at a 
significant level across the range of this subspecies, the high 
likelihood that the severity of the impacts of deteriorating snow and 
ice conditions will increase for this subspecies in the foreseeable 
future, and the fact that the subspecies is landlocked and will be 
unable to respond to habitat loss by dispersing to new habitat, we have 
determined that the Ladoga ringed seal is in danger of extinction 
throughout all of its range. Therefore, we are listing it as 
endangered.

Significant Portion of the Range Evaluation

    Under the ESA and our implementing regulations, a species warrants 
listing if it is endangered or threatened throughout all or a 
significant portion of its range. In our analysis for this final rule, 
we initially evaluated the status of and threats to the Arctic, 
Okhotsk, and Baltic subspecies throughout their entire ranges. We found 
that the consequences of habitat change associated with a warming 
climate can be expected to manifest throughout the current breeding and 
molting ranges of ringed seals, and that the ongoing and projected 
changes in sea ice habitat pose significant threats to the persistence 
of these subspecies. The magnitude of the threats posed to the 
persistence of ringed seals, including from changes in sea ice habitat, 
are likely to vary to some degree across the range of the species 
depending on a number of factors, including where affected populations 
occur. In light of the potential differences in the magnitude of the 
threats to specific areas or populations, we evaluated whether the 
Arctic, Okhotsk, or Baltic subspecies might be in danger of extinction 
in any significant portions of their ranges. In accordance with our 
draft policy on ``significant portion of its range,'' our first step in 
this evaluation was to review the entire supporting record for this 
final determination to ``identify any portions of the range[s] of the 
[subspecies] that warrant further consideration'' (76 FR 77002; 
December 9, 2011). We evaluated whether substantial information 
indicated ``that (i) the portions may be significant [within the 
meaning of the draft policy] and (ii) the species [occupying those 
portions] may be in danger of extinction or likely to become so within 
the foreseeable future'' (76 FR 77002; December 9, 2011). Under the 
draft policy, both considerations must apply to warrant listing a 
species as endangered throughout its range based upon threats within a 
portion of the range. In other words, if either consideration does not 
apply, we would not list a species as endangered based solely upon its 
status within a significant portion of its range. For the Arctic and 
Okhotsk subspecies, we found it more efficient to address the status 
question first, whereas for the Baltic subspecies, we found it more 
efficient to address the significance question first.
    The consequences of the potential threats to the Arctic and Okhotsk 
subspecies, including from changes in sea ice habitat, have been 
addressed in other sections of the preamble to this final rule. Based 
on our review of the record, we did not find substantial information 
indicating that any of the threats to the Arctic and Okhotsk 
subspecies, including those associated with the changes in sea ice 
habitat, are so severe or so concentrated as to indicate that either 
subspecies currently qualifies as endangered within some portion of its 
range. As described in our Listing Determinations, the threats are such 
that we concluded that Arctic and Okhotsk ringed seals are likely to 
become endangered within the foreseeable future. As a result, we find 
that the best available data show that there are no portions of their 
ranges in which the threats are so concentrated or acute as to place 
those portions of the ranges of either subspecies in danger of 
extinction. Because we find that the Arctic and Okhotsk subspecies are 
not endangered in any portions of their ranges, we need not address the 
question of whether any portions may be significant.
    About 75 percent of the Baltic population is found in the Gulf of 
Bothnia (Bothnian Bay) in the northern Baltic Sea, while considerably 
smaller portions of the population are found in the Gulf of Riga and 
Gulf of Finland (15 percent and 5 percent of Baltic ringed seals, 
respectively; Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, 2007). Palo et al. 
(2001) noted that the Baltic Sea subspecies has recently been 
fragmented into these three breeding segments, but that genetic 
evidence of the separation is not yet evident. Recent population 
increases in the Baltic subspecies have been attributed entirely to the 
Gulf of Bothnia portion of the population, while little growth rate or 
possible declines have been suggested for ringed seals in the Gulf of 
Finland and Gulf of Riga (Harkonnen et al., 2008; Karlsson et al., 
2008). We conclude that the best information available does not suggest 
that declines in or loss of the Gulf of Finland and/or Gulf of Riga 
portion(s) would result in a substantial decline in the rest of the 
subspecies. We find that: (1) there is substantial information 
indicating that the Gulf of Bothnia may be a significant portion of the 
Baltic ringed seal's range; and (2) the Gulf of Finland and Gulf of 
Riga are not so significant that the decline or loss of these portions 
of the range would leave the remainder of the subspecies in danger of 
extinction, and thus they do not constitute significant portions of the 
Baltic ringed seal's range.
    The consequences of the potential threats to the Baltic subspecies, 
including from climate change, have been addressed in other sections of 
the

[[Page 76718]]

preamble to this final rule. As described in our Listing 
Determinations, the threats are such that we concluded that Baltic 
ringed seals are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable 
future. We do not have any information that would lead to a different 
conclusion for ringed seals in the Gulf of Bothnia. Therefore, we find 
that the Gulf of Bothnia portion of the Baltic subspecies' range is not 
in danger of extinction, but is likely to become so within the 
foreseeable future.

Prohibitions and Protective Measures

    Section 9 of the ESA prohibits the take of endangered species. The 
term ``take'' means to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, 
trap, capture, or collect, or engage in any such conduct (16 U.S.C. 
1532(19)). In the case of threatened species, ESA section 4(d) 
authorizes NMFS to issue regulations it considers necessary and 
advisable for the conservation of the species. Such regulations may 
include any or all of the section 9 prohibitions. These regulations 
apply to all individuals, organizations, and agencies subject to U.S. 
jurisdiction. On December 10, 2010, we proposed protective regulations 
pursuant to section 4(d) to include all of the prohibitions in section 
9(a)(1) (75 FR 77476) based on a preliminary finding that such measures 
were necessary and advisable for the conservation of the threatened 
subspecies of the ringed seal.
    In light of public comments and upon further review, we are 
withdrawing the proposed ESA section 4(d) protective regulations for 
ringed seals. We received comments arguing against adoption of the 4(d) 
rule and we have not received any information, and are not aware of 
any, indicating that the addition of the ESA section 9 prohibitions 
would apply to any activities that are currently unregulated and are 
having, or have the potential to have, significant effects on the 
Arctic, Okhotsk, or Baltic subspecies. Further, the Arctic, Okhotsk, 
and Baltic subspecies appear sufficiently abundant to withstand typical 
year-to-year variation and natural episodic perturbations in the near 
term. The principal threat to these subspecies of ringed seals is 
habitat alteration stemming from climate change within the foreseeable 
future. This is a long-term threat and the consequences for ringed 
seals will manifest themselves over the next several decades. Finally, 
ringed seals currently benefit from existing protections under the 
MMPA, and activities that may take listed species and involve a Federal 
action will still be subject to consultation under section 7(a)(2) of 
the ESA to ensure such actions will not jeopardize the continued 
existence of the species. We therefore conclude that it is unlikely 
that the proposed section 4(d) regulations would provide appreciable 
conservation benefits. As a result, we have concluded that the 4(d) 
regulations are not necessary at this time. Such regulations could be 
promulgated at some future time if warranted by new information.
    Section 7(a)(2) of the ESA requires Federal agencies to consult 
with us to ensure that activities they authorize, fund, or conduct are 
not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species or 
a species proposed for listing, or to adversely modify critical habitat 
or proposed critical habitat. If a Federal action may affect a listed 
species or its critical habitat, the responsible Federal agency must 
enter into consultation with us. Examples of Federal actions that may 
affect Arctic ringed seals include permits and authorizations relating 
to coastal development and habitat alteration, oil and gas development 
(including seismic exploration), toxic waste and other pollutant 
discharges, and cooperative agreements for subsistence harvest.
    For the Ladoga subspecies of the ringed seal that we are listing as 
endangered, take will be prohibited under section 9 of the ESA. 
Sections 10(a)(1)(A) and (B) of the ESA provide us with authority to 
grant exceptions to the ESA's section 9 ``take'' prohibitions. Section 
10(a)(1)(A) scientific research and enhancement permits may be issued 
to entities (Federal and non-Federal) for scientific purposes or to 
enhance the propagation or survival of a listed species. The type of 
activities potentially requiring a section 10(a)(1)(A) research/
enhancement permit include scientific research that targets ringed 
seals. Section 10(a)(1)(B) incidental take permits are required for 
non-Federal activities that may incidentally take a listed species in 
the course of otherwise lawful activity.

Identification of Those Activities That Would Constitute a Violation of 
Section 9 of the ESA

    On July 1, 1994, NMFS and FWS published a series of policies 
regarding listings under the ESA, including a policy for peer review of 
scientific data (59 FR 34270) and a policy to identify, to the maximum 
extent possible, those activities that would or would not constitute a 
violation of section 9 of the ESA (59 FR 34272). The intent of this 
policy is to increase public awareness of the effect of our ESA listing 
on proposed and ongoing activities within the species' range. We 
identify, to the extent known, specific activities that will be 
considered likely to result in violation of section 9, as well as 
activities that will not be considered likely to result in violation. 
Because the Ladoga ringed seal occurs outside the jurisdiction of the 
United States, we are presently unaware of any specific activities that 
could result in violation of section 9 of the ESA for this subspecies. 
However, we note that it is illegal for any person subject to the 
jurisdiction of the United States to ``take'' within the United States 
or upon the high seas, import or export, deliver, receive, carry, 
transport, or ship in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of a 
commercial activity, or to sell or offer for sale in interstate or 
foreign commerce, any endangered wildlife species. It also is illegal 
to possess, sell, deliver, carry, transport, or ship any such wildlife 
that has been taken in violation of the Act.

Critical Habitat

    Section 3 of the ESA (16 U.S.C. 1532(5)(A)) defines critical 
habitat as: (i) specific areas within the geographical area occupied by 
the species, at the time it is listed in accordance with the ESA, on 
which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to 
the conservation of the species and (II) that may require special 
management considerations or protection; and (ii) specific areas 
outside the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is 
listed upon a determination by the Secretary that such areas are 
essential for the conservation of the species. Section 3 of the ESA 
also defines the terms ``conserve,'' ``conserving,'' and 
``conservation'' to mean ``to use and the use of all methods and 
procedures which are necessary to bring any endangered species or 
threatened species to the point at which the measures provided pursuant 
to this chapter are no longer necessary.''
    Section 4(a)(3) of the ESA requires that, to the extent practicable 
and determinable, critical habitat be designated concurrently with the 
listing of a species. Designation of critical habitat must be based on 
the best scientific data available, and must take into consideration 
the economic, national security, and other relevant impacts of 
specifying any particular area as critical habitat. Once critical 
habitat is designated, section 7 of the ESA requires Federal agencies 
to ensure that they do not fund, authorize, or carry out any actions 
that are likely to destroy or adversely modify that habitat. This 
requirement is in addition to the section 7 requirement that Federal 
agencies ensure their actions do not jeopardize the continued existence 
of the species.

[[Page 76719]]

    In determining what areas qualify as critical habitat, 50 CFR 
424.12(b) requires that NMFS ``consider those physical or biological 
features that are essential to the conservation of a given species 
including space for individual and population growth and for normal 
behavior; food, water, air, light, minerals, or other nutritional or 
physiological requirements; cover or shelter; sites for breeding, 
reproduction, and rearing of offspring; and habitats that are protected 
from disturbance or are representative of the historical geographical 
and ecological distribution of a species.'' The regulations further 
direct NMFS to ``focus on the principal biological or physical 
constituent elements * * * that are essential to the conservation of 
the species,'' and specify that the ``known primary constituent 
elements shall be listed with the critical habitat description.'' The 
regulations identify primary constituent elements (PCEs) as including, 
but not limited to: ``roost sites, nesting grounds, spawning sites, 
feeding sites, seasonal wetland or dryland, water quality or quantity, 
host species or plant pollinator, geological formation, vegetation 
type, tide, and specific soil types.''
    The ESA directs the Secretary of Commerce to consider the economic 
impact, the national security impacts, and any other relevant impacts 
from designating critical habitat, and under section 4(b)(2), the 
Secretary may exclude any area from such designation if the benefits of 
exclusion outweigh those of inclusion, provided that the exclusion will 
not result in the extinction of the species. At this time, we lack the 
data and information necessary to identify and describe PCEs of the 
habitat of the Arctic ringed seal, as well as the economic consequences 
of designating critical habitat. In the proposed rule, we solicited 
information on the economic attributes within the range of the Arctic 
ringed seal that could be impacted by critical habitat designation, as 
well as the identification of the PCEs or ``essential features'' of 
this habitat and to what extent those features may require special 
management considerations or protection. However, few substantive 
comments were received in response to this request. We find designation 
of critical habitat for Arctic ringed seals to be not determinable at 
this time. We will propose critical habitat for Arctic ringed seals in 
a separate rulemaking. Because the known distributions of the Okhotsk, 
Baltic, and Ladoga subspecies of the ringed seal occur outside the 
jurisdiction of the United States, we will not propose critical habitat 
for Okhotsk, Baltic, or Ladoga ringed seals.

Public Comments Solicited

    To ensure that subsequent rulemaking resulting from this final rule 
will be as accurate and effective as possible, we are soliciting 
information from the public, other governmental agencies, Alaska 
Natives, the scientific community, industry, and any other interested 
parties. Specifically, we request comments and information to help us 
identify: (1) The PCEs or ``essential features'' of critical habitat 
for Arctic ringed seals, and to what extent those features may require 
special management considerations or protection; as well as (2) the 
economic, national security, and other relevant attributes within the 
range of the Arctic ringed seal that could be impacted by critical 
habitat designation. Although the range of the Arctic ringed seal is 
circumpolar, regulations at 50 CFR 424.12(h) specify that critical 
habitat shall not be designated within foreign countries or in other 
areas outside U.S. jurisdiction. Therefore, we request information only 
on potential areas of critical habitat within the United States or 
waters within U.S. jurisdiction. You may submit this information by any 
one of several methods (see ADDRESSES and DATES). Comments and 
information submitted during the initial comment period on the December 
10, 2010 proposed rule (75 FR 77476) or during the comment period on 
the peer review report (77 FR 20773; April 6, 2012) should not be 
resubmitted since they are already part of the record.

Summary of Comments and Responses

    With the publication of the proposed listing determination for the 
Arctic, Okhotsk, Baltic, and Ladoga subspecies of the ringed seal on 
December 10, 2010 (75 FR 77476), we announced a 60-day public comment 
period that extended through February 8, 2011. We extended the comment 
period an additional 45 days in response to public requests (76 FR 
6754; February 8, 2011). Also in response to public requests, including 
from the State of Alaska, we held three public hearings in Alaska in 
Anchorage, Barrow, and Nome (76 FR 9733, February 22, 2011; 76 FR 
14882, March 18, 2011).
    During the public comment periods on the proposed rule we received 
a total of 5,294 comment submissions in the form of letters via mail, 
fax, and electronically through the Federal eRulemaking portal. These 
included 5,238 form letter submissions and 56 other unique submissions. 
In addition, at the three public hearings we received testimony from 41 
people and received written submissions from 12 people. Comments were 
received from U.S. State and Federal Agencies including the Marine 
Mammal Commission and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG); 
government agencies of Canada, Nunavut, and Greenland; Native 
Organizations such as the Ice Seal Committee (ISC; Alaska Native co-
management organization); environmental groups; industry groups; and 
interested individuals.
    In accordance with our July 1, 1994, Interagency Cooperative Policy 
on Peer Review (59 FR 34270), we requested the expert opinion of four 
independent scientists with expertise in seal biology and/or Arctic sea 
ice and climate change regarding the pertinent scientific data and 
assumptions concerning the biological and ecological information use in 
the proposed rule. The purpose of the review was to ensure that the 
best biological and commercial information was used in the decision-
making process, including input of appropriate experts and specialists. 
We received comments from three of these reviewers. Two of the 
reviewers questioned the magnitude and immediacy of the threats posed 
to Arctic ringed seals by the projected changes in sea ice habitat, in 
particular on-ice snow cover, while the third reviewer was generally 
supportive of the information and analyses underlying the 
determinations.
    The differences of opinion amongst the peer reviewers, as well as 
uncertainty in the best available information regarding the effects of 
climate change, led NMFS to take additional steps to ensure a sound 
basis for our final determination on whether to list ringed seals under 
the ESA. To better inform our final listing determination and address 
the disagreement regarding the sufficiency or accuracy of the available 
data relevant to the determination, on December 13, 2011, we extended 
the deadline for the final listing decision by 6 months to June 10, 
2012 (76 FR 77466). Subsequently, we conducted special independent peer 
review of the sections of the ringed seal status review report (Kelly 
et al., 2010a) related to the disagreement. For this special peer 
review, we recruited two scientists with marine mammal expertise and 
specific knowledge of ringed seals, and two physical scientists with 
expertise in climate change and Arctic sea ice and snow to review these 
sections of the status review report and provide responses to specific 
review questions. We received comments from the two physical scientists 
and one of the marine mammal specialists. We

[[Page 76720]]

consolidated the comments received in a peer review report that was 
made available for comment during a 30-day comment period that opened 
April 6, 2012 (77 FR 20773). During this public comment period on the 
special peer review we received an additional 15 comment submissions 
via fax and electronically through the Federal eRulemaking portal.
    We fully considered all comments received from the public and peer 
reviewers on the proposed rule in developing this final listing of the 
Arctic, Okhotsk, Baltic, and Ladoga subspecies of the ringed seal. 
Summaries of the substantive public and peer review comments that we 
received concerning our proposed listing determination for these 
subspecies, and our responses to all of the significant issues they 
raise, are provided below. Comments of a similar nature were grouped 
together where appropriate.
    Some peer reviewers provided feedback of an editorial nature that 
noted inadvertent minor errors in the proposed rule and offered non-
substantive but clarifying changes to wording. We have addressed these 
editorial comments in this final rule as appropriate. Because these 
comments did not result in substantive changes to the final rule, we 
have not detailed them here. In addition to the specific comments 
detailed below relating to the proposed listing rule, we also received 
comments expressing general support for or opposition to the proposed 
rule and comments conveying peer-reviewed journal articles, technical 
reports, and references to scientific literature regarding threats to 
the species and its habitat. Unless otherwise noted in our responses 
below, after thorough review, we concluded that the additional 
information received was considered previously or did not alter our 
determinations regarding the status of the four ringed seal subspecies.

Peer Review Comments

    Comment 1: Four peer reviewers commented that the best available 
data on ringed seal demographics and current and past abundance are 
limited to poor or non-existent. Consequently, these reviewers noted 
that there is considerable uncertainty associated with these 
parameters, including in many areas of Canadian waters. In addition, 
one reviewer noted that results of ringed seal surveys reported by 
Kingsley et al. (1985) were not cited. One of the reviewers also 
commented that new information regarding the health and status of 
ringed seals in Alaska that became available after the proposed rule 
was published (i.e., Quakenbush et al., 2011) should be considered, and 
that this information indicates they are currently doing as well or 
better than they have since the 1960s. The State of Alaska submitted a 
summary of this information with its comments on the proposed rule, and 
also subsequently submitted a full copy of Quakenbush et al. (2011), 
commenting that these data indicate Arctic ringed seals are currently 
healthy.
    Response: We agree that data on ringed seal demography and 
population size are limited. None of the published reports (including 
Kingsley et al., 1985) provide reliable estimates of total or range-
wide population size. We have taken Quakenbush et al.'s (2011) data 
(available at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/protectedresources/seals/ice.htm) into consideration in reaching our final listing 
determination, and these data will be useful in future status reviews. 
We note, however, that healthy individual animals are not inconsistent 
with a population facing threats that would cause it to become in 
danger of extinction in the foreseeable future. For example, animals 
sampled from the endangered Western DPS of Steller sea lions have 
consistently been found to be healthy. In the case of ringed seals, 
substantial losses due to predation and hypothermia associated with 
reduced snow cover could not be detected by assessing the health of 
survivors. In fact, survivors might be expected to fare well for a 
period of time as a consequence of reduced competition.
    Comment 2: A peer reviewer suggested that although the ringed seal 
population in the Sea of Okhotsk is reported to have been in a state of 
steady decline for 55 years, there are still a substantial number of 
seals estimated in this population. This reviewer noted that it is 
possible that the perceived decline reflects sampling error rather than 
an actual decline in abundance.
    Response: We must base our listing decisions solely on the best 
scientific and commercial data available, after conducting a status 
review of the species and taking into account efforts to protect the 
species. Improved population estimates certainly are desirable. In the 
meantime, as discussed in the proposed rule and detailed in the status 
review report, the best available information indicates a decline for 
the Okhotsk subspecies from historical numbers.
    Comment 3: Four peer reviewers expressed the view that the 
atmosphere-ocean general circulation models (AOGCMs) used for climate, 
sea ice, and snow prediction are not appropriate for directly linking 
to ringed seal habitat or for predicting snow on sea ice at a scale 
that is important for ringed seals. For example, some of these 
reviewers commented that the models: (1) Do not represent precipitation 
adequately, particularly at a local scale (one reviewer stated that it 
is well known that AOGCMs do not adequately predict precipitation, and 
two reviewers noted that some regional models predict precipitation 
poorly); (2) do not account for openings in the ice that are large 
sources of moisture and heat in the atmosphere, thus making winter 
precipitation prediction problematic; and (3) do not account for ice 
surface roughness caused by deformation in autumn through winter, or 
wind speeds and directions, which are critical to the distribution and 
accumulation pattern of snow on ice. Related comments of some of these 
reviewers suggested that increased deformation can be expected as ice 
forms later in the autumn and remains thinner throughout the winter, 
and that this could actually mean an improvement to Arctic ringed seal 
habitat. One of these reviewers pointed out that in addition, the 
projections of future Arctic snow cover are discussed in terms of the 
present climatology of snow over sea ice (i.e., increased precipitation 
in autumn and spring, and less in winter). This reviewer suggested that 
snow climatology would be expected to change due to more open water 
later into the winter, which would provide a moisture source for 
increasing pulses of snow on sea ice in the autumn and perhaps through 
winter if the atmosphere remained warmer. Several public comments, 
including from the State of Alaska, Canada's Department of Fisheries 
and Oceans (DFO), and Nunavut's Department of Environment, expressed 
more general concerns about limitations with the model projections of 
snow cover, and some commenters also suggested that the model 
projections should be verified by field observations.
    In contrast, a third peer reviewer commented that the model 
considered in the status review is the best source available for snow 
cover projections, and a commenter expressed a similar view. The 
commenter also noted that the snow depth findings of the status review 
are now supported by a new snow depth analysis by Hezel et al. (2012) 
that uses a more advanced suite of models from the Coupled Model 
Intercomparison Project Phase 5 (CMIP5; IPCC AR5) and suggested that 
this analysis addresses some of the

[[Page 76721]]

critiques raised in the special peer review.
    Response: The model (CCSM3; IPCC) that we used to project snow 
depths includes the ice-thickness distribution and therefore accounts 
for sea ice deformation as a function of the sea ice compressive 
strength (resistance to compressive stresses; computed from the 
potential energy of the ice-thickness distribution) and the opening and 
closing rates of leads (linear cracks of open water in the ice) in the 
ice (computed from the ice motion field). The model has roughly 2 
percent open water and 10 percent of the area with ice thickness less 
than 60 cm in the central Arctic in winter months. These aspects of the 
model are well documented in Holland et al. (2006). The consequence of 
resolving open water and thin ice allows for higher evaporation rates 
over these surfaces. The model shows a greater rate of evaporation as 
the sea ice concentration declines over the 21st century. This 
contributes to higher snowfall rates in winter (November-March).
    Sea ice deformation rates in the CCSM3 indicate the 21st century 
will see increased deformation rates in regions where sea ice motion is 
towards the shore, such as north of Greenland and the Canadian 
Archipelago. As we noted in the proposed rule and the status review 
report, this region is projected to maintain summer sea ice cover 
during this century longer than any other. Though we agree that there 
may be a greater concentration of deformed ice in some regions where 
snow may collect, the CCSM3 (and other models analyzed by Hezel et al., 
2012) also predicts that snow depths will decrease on average in this 
region within this century. When ice floes (sheets of floating ice) 
converge, they first must fill in leads between the floes. Hence when 
there is more open water in the 21st century and only occasional 
converging events, there can be less rafting and ridging. Therefore, 
deformation is not expected to increase in frequency everywhere. For 
example, the projected deformation rate changes little in the CCSM3 in 
most of the Barents Sea and Siberian coastal regions.
    As noted by a commenter, recently, Hezel et al. (2012) considered 
historical and 21st century snow depth changes on Arctic sea ice using 
10 models from the CMIP5 that had snow depth data available. The model 
projections were compared with existing observations, and according to 
Hezel et al. (2012), the model projections were on average about 10 
percent below observations, but about one-third of the individual 
models projected more snow than observed. Despite the broad range of 
snow depths among the 10 models over the 21st century, the models all 
agree that snow depths will decline substantially in the future, 
similar to the CCSM3. Snow depths decline faster in the models with 
greater initial depth, so the spread in the model projections declines 
over time, lending greater support for these forecasts. Hezel et al. 
(2012) discuss that over the 21st century, the loss of sea ice as a 
platform to collect snow in autumn and early winter (due to later sea 
ice formation) results in a substantial reduction in the amount of snow 
that can accumulate on sea ice, the primary concern that was also 
expressed in the status review report and the proposed rule. Hezel et 
al. (2012) also discuss that their analysis may underestimate future 
decreases in snow depths because decreases in autumn and winter sea ice 
concentrations could result in loss of drifting snow into leads, and 
the models also do not account for the effect of rainfall in winter and 
spring on net snow accumulation and melting.
    We continue to conclude that the best available information 
suggests that the CCSM3 projects snow depth reasonably well. We note, 
for example, that snow depths from the CCSM3 are consistent with 
measured snow in the Arctic Ocean (Radionov et al., 1997) and Hudson 
Bay (Ferguson et al., 2005). The resolution of the model projections of 
snow is certainly limited, but the CCSM3 and more recent model results 
point unequivocally to less snow accumulation on the ice throughout the 
range of the species. The reviewers/commenters did not present--and we 
are not aware of--evidence that snow accumulation is likely to increase 
at any scale that would likely be helpful for ringed seal populations 
responding to the expected climate warming.
    Comment 4: A peer reviewer commented that fast (shorefast) ice 
conditions are not considered adequately in any of the AOGCMs used. 
This reviewer expressed the opinion that this is a key problem with the 
assessment because a significant amount of Arctic ringed seal habitat 
is related to fast ice, and fast ice zones will also be less affected 
than marginal ice zones.
    Response: The sea ice dynamical schemes used in AOGCMs (including 
the CCSM3) have regions of very slow moving ice, though not perfectly 
rigid. These regions exhibit little deformation and lead openings in 
AOGCMs. NMFS did not use AOGCMs to estimate changes to the fast ice 
area. Instead, we used AOGCMs to estimate changes to snow depth and sea 
ice area. Nevertheless, the status review report indicated that there 
is already clear evidence of advancement in the break-up date of fast 
ice and the onset of snow melt in several parts of the Arctic (e.g., 
Ferguson et al., 2005; Kelly et al., 2006). No evidence was found by 
the BRT or presented by the peer reviewers or other commenters that 
indicates these trends are likely to abate or reverse. Early break up 
and early snow melt dates have clearly been associated with poor 
survival of ringed seal young. Therefore, these trends are likely to 
result in reduced productivity, resilience, and abundance of the Arctic 
ringed seal population, despite the fact that the models do not 
explicitly distinguish fast ice from pack ice (both of which are 
important ringed seal habitats).
    Comment 5: A peer reviewer, as well as Canada's DFO, noted 
observations of regional snow conditions and ringed seal pupping that 
they suggested may conflict with the model projections of snow depths 
and the 20 cm minimum snow depth criterion identified for ringed seal 
birth lairs. The reviewer pointed out that based on CCSM3 model 
projections presented in the status review report, average April snow 
depths on sea ice for the first decade of this century in Hudson Bay 
appear to be below 20 cm, which she suggested implies longer-term 
reproductive failure in this population than the decline and/or perhaps 
decadal cycles suggested by the available data. In addition, this 
reviewer noted that loss of sea ice and snow can vary regionally, and 
that this needs to be taken into consideration in evaluating impacts. A 
few public comments also pointed out what were believed to be 
discrepancies in some regions between the model projections of snow 
depths and local observations, and expressed the view that a model that 
does not agree with current conditions should not be used to project 
future conditions. For example, these comments noted that: (1) Ringed 
seals continue to occupy and reproduce in the northern Bering Sea, 
while the model projections suggest that snow depths are currently 
below 20 cm in these areas; and (2) the observed trend in annual 
snowfall accumulation since the 1980s in the vicinity of Barrow shows a 
clear upward trend, with levels similar to or exceeding those recorded 
during previous periods when ringed seals successfully maintained 
lairs.
    Response: The models should be interpreted as indicating trends in 
conditions when averaged over large areas. There may well be local or 
regional variation sufficient to produce locally different trends. A 
single model is prone to large errors on the scale of

[[Page 76722]]

a few hundred kilometers. For example, the CCSM3 has too much sea ice 
area in the Sea of Okhotsk and in the Labrador Sea. On the scale of the 
Northern Hemisphere, the errors across these regions cancel somewhat. 
Another appropriate use of a model is to evaluate agreement across 
regions. Although the rate of change varies by region, the CCSM3 has 
snow depth decreasing everywhere, which lends support for the projected 
direction of future change.
    Comment 6: A peer reviewer expressed the opinion that insufficient 
consideration is given to the greater role that the Arctic Archipelago 
will likely play as an ice retention zone over the coming decades.
    Response: The proposed rule noted that the Arctic Archipelago is 
predicted to become an ice refuge through the end of this century. 
Indeed, the Archipelago ``will likely play'' a ``greater role'' in 
ringed seal habitat ``over the coming decades,'' but not because 
habitat will improve there (snow accumulation, for example, is 
projected to decline). Rather, the Archipelago's increased role will 
reflect greater losses of ice and snow elsewhere in the Arctic. In 
other words, the Archipelago is projected to be the last possible 
remnant of suitable habitat, although we do not know how suitable or 
for how long.
    Comment 7: A peer reviewer expressed the opinion that use of 
temperatures as a proxy for projecting sea ice conditions in the Sea of 
Okhotsk appears problematic given that: (1) The climate models did not 
perform satisfactorily at projecting sea ice, and sea ice extent is 
strongly controlled by temperature; and (2) temperature itself is 
strongly controlled by sea ice conditions.
    Response: The decision to use temperature as an indicator for the 
presence of ice is a geographic size issue. While the climate models' 
grid size is too coarse to develop full sea ice physics for the Sea of 
Okhotsk, these models are able to resolve temperature, which is mostly 
controlled by large-scale weather patterns on the order of 500 km or 
more. As the reviewer notes, sea ice extent is strongly controlled by 
temperature; this is especially true for smaller bodies of water 
relative to the grid size of available models. Thus, whether the whole 
geographic region around the Sea of Okhotsk is above or below the 
freezing point of sea water should be a reasonable indicator of the 
presence or absence of sea ice.
    Comment 8: A peer reviewer suggested that climate models capable of 
adequately capturing fast ice formation, the physics of snow 
precipitation, and the catchment of snow should be a high priority for 
development.
    Response: We agree with this recommendation.
    Comment 9: A peer reviewer expressed the view that climate model 
predictions should not be considered beyond mid-century because they 
rely on assumptions about future policy decisions that will affect GHG 
emissions and are thus highly speculative. Related public comments, 
including from the State of Alaska, noted that NMFS's recent ESA 
listing determination for the ribbon seal and a subsequent court 
decision concluded that projections of climate scenarios beyond 2050 
are too heavily dependent on socioeconomic assumptions and are 
therefore too divergent for reliable use in assessing threats to the 
species. Two reviewers and several commenters expressed the opinion 
that trying to predict the response of seals to environmental change 
beyond mid-century increases the uncertainty unreasonably. A reviewer 
and several public comments also pointed out that assessing impacts to 
ringed seals from climate change through the end of this century is 
inconsistent with: (1) Other recent ESA determinations for Arctic 
species, such as ribbon seal and polar bear, that considered species 
responses through mid-century; (2) the IUCN red list process, which 
uses a timeframe of three generation lengths; and (3) the mid-century 
timeframe considered to evaluate environmental responses of marine 
mammals to climate change in a special issue (March 2008) of the 
journal Ecological Applications (Walsh, 2008). A few commenters 
expressed the opinion that the altered approach is significant because 
the listing determinations are wholly dependent upon NMFS's use of a 
100-year foreseeable future. Several commenters expressed the opinion 
that inadequate justification was provided for NMFS's use of a 100-year 
foreseeable future. Many of these commenters suggested that the best 
scientific data support a ``foreseeable future'' time frame of no more 
than 50 years, and some commenters such as the State of Alaska 
suggested a shorter time horizon of no more than 20 years. In contrast, 
another peer reviewer and some commenters expressed support for use of 
climate model projections through the end of the 21st century.
    Response: The ESA requires us to make a decision as to whether the 
species under consideration is in danger of extinction throughout all 
or a significant portion of its range (endangered), or is likely to 
become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a 
significant portion of its range (threatened) based on the best 
scientific and commercial data available. While we may consider the 
assessment processes of other scientists (i.e., IUCN; Walsh, 2008), we 
must make a determination as to whether a species meets the definition 
of threatened or endangered based upon an assessment of the threats 
according to section 4 of the ESA. We have done so in this rule, using 
a threat-specific approach to the ``foreseeable future'' as discussed 
below and in the proposed listing rule.
    In the December 30, 2008, ribbon seal listing decision (73 FR 
79822) the horizon of the foreseeable future was determined to be the 
year 2050. The reasons for limiting the review to 2050 included the 
difficulty in incorporating the increased divergence and uncertainty in 
future emissions scenarios beyond this time, as well as the lack of 
data for threats other than those related to climate change beyond 
2050, and that the uncertainty inherent in assessing ribbon seal 
responses to threats increased as the analysis extended farther into 
the future. By contrast, in our more recent analyses for spotted, 
ringed, and bearded seals, we did not identify a single specific time 
as the foreseeable future. Rather, we addressed the foreseeable future 
based on the available data for each respective threat. This approach 
better reflects real conditions in that some threats (e.g., disease 
outbreaks) appear more randomly through time and are therefore 
difficult to predict, whereas other threats (climate change) evince 
documented trends supported by paleoclimatic data from which reasonably 
accurate predictions can be made farther into the future. Thus, the 
time period covered for what is reasonably foreseeable for one threat 
may not be the same for another. The approach is also consistent with 
the memorandum issued by the Department of Interior, Office of the 
Solicitor, regarding the meaning of the term ``foreseeable future'' 
(Opinion M-37021; January 16, 2009). In consideration of this modified 
threat-specific approach, NMFS initiated a new status review of the 
ribbon seal on December 13, 2011 (76 FR 77467).
    As discussed in the proposed listing rule, the analysis and 
synthesis of information presented in the IPCC's AR4 represents the 
scientific consensus view on the causes and future of climate change. 
The IPCC's AR4 used state-of-the-art AOGCMs under six ``marker'' 
scenarios from the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES; IPCC, 
2000) to develop climate projections under

[[Page 76723]]

clearly stated assumptions about socioeconomic factors that could 
influence the emissions. Conditional on each scenario, the best 
estimate and likely range of emissions were projected through the end 
of the 21st century. In our review of the status of the ringed seal, we 
considered model projections of sea ice developed using the A1B 
scenario, a medium ``business-as-usual'' emissions scenario, as well 
the A2 scenario, a high emissions scenario, to represent a significant 
range of variability in future emissions.
    We also note that the SRES scenarios do not assume implementation 
of additional climate initiatives beyond current mitigation policies. 
This is consistent with consideration of ``existing'' regulatory 
mechanisms in our analysis under ESA listing Factor D. It is also 
consistent with our Policy on Evaluating Conservation Efforts (68 FR 
15100; March 28, 2003), which requires that in making listing decisions 
we consider only formalized conservation efforts that are sufficiently 
certain to be implemented and effective.
    The model projections of global warming (defined as the expected 
global change in surface air temperature) out to about 2040-2050 are 
primarily due to emissions that have already occurred and those that 
will occur over the next decade. Thus conditions projected to mid-
century are less sensitive to assumed future emissions scenarios. For 
the second half of the 21st century, however, the choice of an 
emissions scenario becomes the major source of variation among climate 
projections. As noted above, in our 2008 listing decision for ribbon 
seal, the foreseeable future was determined to be the year 2050. The 
identification of mid-century as the foreseeable future took into 
consideration the approach taken by FWS in conducting its status review 
of the polar bear under the ESA, and the IPCC assertion that GHG levels 
are expected to increase in a manner that is largely independent of 
assumed emissions scenarios until about the middle of the 21st century, 
after which the emissions scenarios become increasingly influential.
    Subsequently, in the listing analyses for spotted, ringed, and 
bearded seals, we noted that although projections of GHGs become 
increasingly uncertain and subject to assumed emissions scenarios in 
the latter half of the 21st century, projections of air temperatures 
consistently indicate that warming will continue throughout the 
century. Although the magnitude of the warming depends somewhat on the 
assumed emissions scenario, the trend is clear and unidirectional. To 
the extent that the IPCC model suite represents a consensus view, there 
is relatively little uncertainty that warming will continue. Because 
sea ice production and persistence is related to air temperature 
through well-known physical processes, the expectation is also that 
loss of sea ice and reduced snow cover will continue throughout the 
21st century. Thus, the more recent inclusion of projections out to the 
year 2100 reflects NMFS's intention to use the best and most current 
data and analytical approaches available. AOGCM projections 
consistently show continued reductions in ice extent and multi-year ice 
(ice that has survived at least one summer melt season) throughout the 
21st century (e.g., Holland et al., 2006; Zhang and Walsh, 2006; 
Overland and Wang, 2007), albeit with a spread among the models in the 
projected reductions. In addition, as discussed by Douglas (2010), the 
observed rate of Arctic sea ice loss has been reported as greater than 
the collective projections of most IPCC-recognized AOGCMs (e.g., 
Stroeve et al., 2007; Wang and Overland, 2009), suggesting that the 
projections of sea ice declines within this century may in fact be 
conservative.
    We concluded that in this review of the status of the ringed seal, 
the climate projections in the IPCC's AR4, as well as the scientific 
papers used in this report or resulting from this report, represent the 
best scientific and commercial data available to inform our assessment 
of the potential impacts from climate change. In our risk assessment 
for ringed seals, we therefore considered the full 21st century 
projections to analyze the threats stemming from climate change. We 
continue to recognize that the farther into the future the analysis 
extends, the greater the inherent uncertainty, and we incorporated that 
consideration into our assessments of the threats and the species' 
responses to the threats.
    Comment 10: Three peer reviewers expressed the opinion that the 
potential for ringed seals to modify their behavior in response to 
climate conditions is underestimated. These reviewers suggested that 
plasticity in ringed seal life-history activities includes variability 
in timing of reproduction and molting relative to changes in the ice 
and snow cover season; the ability to survive slightly shortened 
nursing periods; and the ability to migrate over long distances, to use 
alternative platforms to haul out on, and to use alternative food 
resources. One reviewer noted that changes in Ladoga and Saimaa seal 
reproductive behavior in recent history (e.g., increased use of 
shorelines for lair construction) also demonstrate adaptive responses. 
The resilience and adaptability of ringed seals was also noted in 
several public comments, including those of Canada's DFO, Nunavut's 
Department of Environment, and Greenland's Department of Fishing, 
Hunting, and Agriculture (DFHA). In addition, a related public comment 
expressed the view that the determination appears to contradict NMFS's 
emphasis in its recent ESA listing determinations for ribbon and 
spotted seals on the ability of ice seals to adapt to declines in sea 
ice.
    Response: Presumably the reviewers are referring to phenotypic 
plasticity, which is the ability of an individual genotype (genetic 
composition) to produce multiple phenotypes (observable characteristics 
or traits) in response to its environment. Plasticity in the timing of 
ringed seal reproduction and molting is not established. More 
importantly, the BRT would predict population reductions as habitat 
changes (i.e., depth and duration of ice and especially snow cover 
decreases) require changes in the timing of reproduction and molting, 
decreased nursing periods, changes in migration, use of alternative 
haul-out substrates, and changes in diet. If the reviewers are arguing 
that ringed seal populations might persist in the face of such changes, 
we agree. If the reviewers are suggesting that ringed seal populations 
would not be expected to decline significantly in the face of such 
changes, we disagree.
    Comment 11: A peer reviewer commented that regional variation in 
the minimum snow depth required for Arctic ringed seal lair 
construction and maintenance is an important consideration, and noted 
that the ambient temperatures and primary predator in a particular 
region may influence the minimum snow drift depth needed for birth lair 
formation and maintenance. This reviewer discussed that ringed seal 
birth lairs have been successfully constructed in drifts shallower than 
45 cm, with corresponding snow depths on flat ice of less than 20 cm, 
in some parts of the subspecies' range, and also noted how difficult it 
is to measure snow depth and how poor the data coverage is across 
various parts of the Arctic ringed seal's range. A commenter expressed 
the opinion that given the reviewer's emphasis on regional variation, 
20 cm average snow depth might not be adequate in many regions. This 
commenter also noted that Ferguson et al. (2005) found a minimum of 32 
cm average snow depth was needed for lairs in western Hudson Bay.

[[Page 76724]]

    Response: We recognize that there is some uncertainty in 
measurement of snow depth and in identifying a threshold depth 
(measured as the average accumulation of snow on flat ice) for adequate 
recruitment of ringed seals. The minimum adequate snow depth is 
unlikely to be a sharp threshold, so that there will no doubt be many 
cases in which successful lairs have been created and maintained in 
snow shallower than the threshold, and also many cases where ringed 
seals have succumbed to predation or exposure in lairs made in deeper 
snow. Also, there may be regional differences in this threshold depth, 
though the examples that were cited in the status review report and the 
proposed rule, and used to estimate the snow depth threshold, included 
documentation of predation by bears, foxes, and birds. However, our 
conclusions were based primarily on the expectation that snow depths 
will decrease substantially in the coming decades, and that poor 
survival of young seals has already been documented in recent years 
with early break-up or onset of snow melt. No compelling evidence was 
received during the peer reviews and public comment periods to indicate 
that these impacts are likely to abate or reverse, or that they are 
expected to be isolated to particular regions. We discussed in the 
preamble to the proposed rule that the best available estimate of the 
minimum average snow depth (on flat ice) for the formation of birthing 
lairs is at least 20-30 cm, and we considered areas projected to have 
less than 20 cm average snow depth in April to be inadequate for the 
formation of ringed seal birth lairs. However, the conclusion that snow 
habitat will decline substantially throughout the ringed seal's range 
was not highly dependent on that specific value.
    Comment 12: A peer reviewer commented that while the observations 
reported of the effects of extreme weather events on Arctic ringed 
seals are important to consider, there are relatively few data on how 
these habitat effects are influencing longer-term reproductive 
potential and population dynamics need to be considered in the proper 
geographic and temporal context. This reviewer noted that these 
observations are also for Arctic ringed seals in the southern extent of 
their range and in the western Arctic, where ringed seals are expected 
to be more strongly affected by climate change. Therefore, they need to 
be considered in the proper geographic and temporal context.
    Response: Long-term data on population dynamics of ice-associated 
seals would be prohibitively difficult and expensive to acquire. 
Therefore, it is critical and required by the ESA to make use of 
existing data, which include observations from years or short periods 
of extreme conditions, as analogs for projected future trends. As the 
reviewer noted, it is important to keep in mind possible limitations of 
this approach, including the geographic and temporal contexts. Although 
several of the key studies relating ringed seal vital rates to 
environmental conditions do come from southern parts of the species' 
distribution, the conditions encountered in those studies did not 
exceed the values for temperatures, minimum snow depths, and ice break-
up dates that are anticipated in the coming decades throughout most of 
the Arctic ringed seal's range.
    Comment 13: A peer reviewer suggested that the assumption that 
inadequate snow depths and warmer temperatures will cause high pup 
mortality due to the loss of thermal protection is based on very 
limited data. This reviewer also commented that ringed seal pups may 
not need lairs for thermal protection to the same degree as 
temperatures warm, which may be why ringed seals successfully pup 
without lairs in the Sea of Okhotsk. Another reviewer commented that 
the thermal benefit of lairs appears secondary to predator avoidance. A 
related public comment noted that some data on seal pup mortality due 
to hypothermia (i.e., Hammill and Smith, 1991) suggest that seal pups 
are largely unaffected by the snow depth of subnivean lairs, and are in 
fact much more tolerant of temperature extremes than suggested.
    Response: Substantial data indicate high pup mortality due to 
hypothermia and predation as a consequence of inadequate snow cover 
(Kumlien, 1879; Lydersen et al., 1987; Lydersen and Smith, 1989; Smith 
et al., 1991; Smith and Lydersen, 1991; Hammill and Smith, 1989; 
Hammill and Smith, 1991). The suggestion that ringed seals may not need 
lairs to the same degree as temperatures warm is overly simplistic. 
Unseasonal warming and rains will become increasingly common as the 
climate warms, and such events have led to high pup mortality when 
collapse of lairs was followed by a return to cold temperatures (Lukin 
and Potelov, 1978; Stirling and Smith, 2004; Ferguson et al., 2005). 
Whether one benefit is secondary or not, the preamble to the proposed 
rule summarized considerable data that was detailed in the status 
review report indicating that lairs protect seals from both cold and 
predators.
    Comment 14: A peer reviewer suggested that the climate model 
projections of snow cover indicate it is highly likely sufficient snow 
will be available to Arctic ringed seals in the foreseeable future 
during the key months when reproduction is likely to occur.
    Response: As discussed in the preamble to the proposed rule, 
contrary to this reviewer's suggestion, by the end of the century, 
April snow cover is projected to become inadequate for the formation 
and occupation of ringed seal birth lairs over much of the Arctic 
ringed seal's range.
    Comment 15: A peer reviewer commented that the increasing 
probability of spring precipitation coming in the form of rain during 
the critical birth lair period (i.e., April) is of particular concern.
    Response: This concern (i.e., potential for spring rain to damage 
lairs) was identified in the preamble to the proposed rule and was 
acknowledged and considered by the BRT in its risk assessment (see 
Kelly et al., 2010a). We note that Hezel et al. (2012) reported a 
projected increase in rainfall in April and May through the end of this 
century.
    Comment 16: One of the peer reviewers expressed the opinion there 
should be more focus on the seasonal thresholds and types of ice that 
are thought to be important for ringed seals, as some thresholds are 
likely to be more critical than others. This reviewer suggested this 
type of synthesis is needed to evaluate how important changing ice 
extent, thickness, and presence of multiyear ice will be in the future. 
For example, a change in ice thickness in core Arctic habitat may be 
less significant than a change in freeze-up dynamics that affects ice 
roughness and subsequent snow drift development in the medium and long-
term.
    Response: A multi-factorial model of the impacts of ice extent, 
thickness, and ice type on ringed seal populations would be desirable. 
However, we are not aware of any time series or other data sets that 
could be used in such an analysis.
    Comment 17: A peer reviewer noted there are few data on what 
proportion of the habitat identified as ``suitable'' is actually used 
by Arctic ringed seals, and commented that without this information it 
is difficult to evaluate the impact of ice loss. This reviewer 
suggested that in core Arctic areas, availability of ice may not be a 
limiting factor, even with changes in the short and medium term.
    Response: The greatest uncertainty about areas actually used by 
ringed seals

[[Page 76725]]

is with respect to the offshore areas, especially the central Arctic 
Basin. Along the coasts and in the marginal seas, there is relatively 
good evidence that ringed seals are currently widespread if not 
ubiquitous in areas with regular presence of suitable winter ice and 
snow cover. Many of these areas are projected to become unsuitable 
within the 21st century. Because potentially suitable sea ice and snow 
are projected to be present in parts of core Arctic areas longer than 
in other areas of the Arctic ringed seal's range, ringed seals may be 
affected later in these areas. Nevertheless, reductions in snow depths 
are projected throughout the Arctic ringed seal's range, including in 
core Arctic areas, such that Arctic ringed seals are threatened by the 
anticipated habitat changes throughout their range.
    Comment 18: A peer reviewer commented that considerable emphasis is 
placed on the projected loss of multi-year and seasonal ice cover. 
However, this reviewer noted that Arctic ringed seals avoid multi-year 
ice, instead preferring stable first-year ice and stable pack ice, and 
they only require ice during breeding and possibly molting. In 
addition, the reviewer commented that how Arctic ringed seals might 
respond to replacement of multi-year sea ice by seasonal first-year ice 
is not sufficiently considered, noting that although the Arctic Basin 
has relatively low productivity, it is unclear whether this will remain 
the case in the future. Another peer reviewer and Greenland's DFHA both 
commented that the translation of multi-year ice into more first-year 
ice could actually increase the amount of ringed seal habitat.
    A few commenters, including Canada's DFO, similarly suggested that 
some habitat changes caused by projected changes in climatic 
conditions, such as increased open water foraging areas, may be 
beneficial to ringed seals. One commenter expressed the opinion that 
NMFS arbitrarily adopted a precautionary approach that assumed the 
worst possible future habitat conditions without taking into account 
any future potential habitat gains. This commenter also stated that it 
was unclear why NMFS provided the special peer reviewers of the bearded 
seal status review a supplemental analysis that highlighted habitat 
losses and gains based on the sea ice concentration criteria, but did 
not provide a similar analysis for ringed seals.
    Response: As discussed above, we used AOGCM projections to estimate 
changes to snow depth and sea ice area throughout the range of Arctic 
ringed seals. Thus, our analysis did not place particular emphasis on 
certain ages or types of ice. NMFS considered the impacts of an 
increased proportion of Arctic ice being made up of first-year ice. 
Indeed, first-year ice is predicted to form progressively later in 
fall, after much of the annual snow has already fallen, so snow depths 
are projected to be diminished on first-year ice as well. An increase 
in the proportion of first-year ice would not be beneficial to ringed 
seal breeding and pup survival if snow depths on the new regions of 
first-year ice are insufficient for lair creation and maintenance.
    We agree that ongoing climate disruption and warming may cause some 
habitat changes that could be beneficial to ringed seals. However, a 
shift from unsuitable to suitable values of a few habitat dimensions is 
not a strong indication that other habitat will become suitable 
overall. For example, if Arctic ringed seals move north with retreating 
ice and occupy new areas, they may encounter less prey availability in 
the deeper, less productive Arctic Basin. The reviewer's assertion that 
the Arctic Basin may become more productive is highly speculative; 
unlike the physical models used to predict ice and snow, there is not a 
broad scientific consensus on the general direction of the expected 
trends.
    We are not aware of any documented examples of ice-associated 
species expanding into previously unsuitable habitat that has become 
suitable due to climate or other large-scale shifts in conditions. 
Therefore, we conclude that it is more likely that losses of current 
habitat will outweigh any potential habitat gains. We also note that as 
ice and snow cover decline, Arctic waters may become more hospitable to 
species like spotted and harbor seals that do not depend on snow-
covered ice for breeding. So, as breeding habitat declines for ringed 
seals, they may also face greater competition for food.
    Regarding the supplemental analysis provided to the special peer 
reviewers of the bearded seal status review report, that analysis 
summarized the projected changes in areas of suitable bearded seal 
habitat based on sea ice concentration and bathymetry criteria during 
the months of reproduction and molting, both including and excluding 
areas of potential habitat gains. Possible habitat gains for bearded 
seals were described as areas where sea ice concentrations were 
currently too dense to be considered suitable, but where projected 
future concentrations fall within the suitable range. For ringed seals, 
a key consideration in evaluating the potential impacts of the 
projected changes in ice and snow is sufficient snow depth for the 
formation and maintenance of lairs. We considered areas projected to 
have less than 20 cm of average snow depth in April to be inadequate 
for the formation of ringed seal birth lairs. Model projections 
indicate that throughout the range of ringed seals there will be a 
substantial reduction in on-ice snow cover within this century. 
Therefore, a supplemental analysis similar to the one provided to the 
bearded seal special peer reviewers would not have indicated any 
potential gains in suitable habitat in terms of areas with snow depths 
sufficient for ringed seal birth lairs in April.
    Comment 19: A peer reviewer noted that there was discussion in the 
status review report of limited evidence suggesting lack of a suitable 
ice platform may lead to a delayed molt. This reviewer commented that 
this should be discussed, along with the longer term impact from a 
survival aspect. The Marine Mammal Commission submitted a related 
comment that the projected loss of ice poses a threat to molting Arctic 
ringed seals that should not be overlooked. The Commission noted that 
failure of ice in a molting area may mean that seals are forced to 
spend more time in the water, where they must expend more energy to 
maintain body temperature-energy that does not go to the production of 
a new coat.
    Response: The limited evidence suggesting that a lack of suitable 
ice may lead to a delayed molt was discussed in the status review 
report. The BRT considered the threat posed from decreases in sea ice 
habitat suitable for molting as moderately significant to the 
persistence of Arctic, Baltic, and Ladoga ringed seals, and moderately 
to highly significant to the persistence of Okhotsk ringed seals 
(Tables 5-8; Kelly et al., 2010a).
    Comment 20: A peer reviewer commented that given what is known 
about the relatively diverse diet of Arctic ringed seals in different 
regions and the potential for new species of forage fish to shift 
northward, it is very difficult to predict how quickly the distribution 
of ringed seals might change in some regions. This reviewer expressed 
the opinion that it is likely to be highly variable, making conclusions 
about climate change impacts over broad geographic regions difficult.
    Response: NMFS agrees that drawing such conclusions is difficult. 
The BRT members' assessments of the significance of specific threats to 
ringed seal persistence in the foreseeable future were summarized in 
the status review report in numerical scores. The BRT members assigned 
relatively low threat

[[Page 76726]]

scores and low degrees of certainty to threats from changes in prey 
availability or density and higher threat scores to changes in snow 
cover and the impacts on rearing young (Table 5; Kelly et al., 2010a). 
It is not clear how increased food would compensate for the loss of 
snow, nor is it clear that forage fish moving north would not be 
accompanied by predators that would compete with ringed seals for those 
prey.
    Comment 21: A peer reviewer suggested that the lack of subnivean 
lairs in the Sea of Okhotsk has apparently not increased pup mortality 
there to an extent that it has significantly decreased the population.
    Response: Russian literature has been inconsistent as to whether or 
not lairs are or were used in the Sea of Okhotsk. We know of no data 
that would support the reviewer's assertion that pup mortality has not 
increased or that the population has not significantly decreased. The 
best available information would suggest the population has decreased, 
but as noted elsewhere, estimates of population size are poor.
    Comment 22: Two peer reviewers commented that Arctic ringed seals 
are considerably more abundant and broadly distributed than Okhotsk and 
Baltic ringed seals, and their habitat is forecast to change less 
substantially. Therefore, it is unclear why the demographic risks for 
all three populations were assessed at relatively similar levels.
    Response: The ``relatively similar levels'' are, in part, a 
function of the 1 to 5 numeric scale used to estimate risk in the 
status review report. The BRT assessed the risk in terms of abundance 
for the Okhotsk population as 31 percent higher than for the Arctic 
population, and the risk for the Baltic population as 38 percent higher 
than for the Arctic population in the foreseeable future (Table 10; 
Kelly et al., 2010a). The assessment of demographic risks was detailed 
for each population in section 4.3 of the status review report.
    Comment 23: A peer reviewer commented that while it is acknowledged 
that ringed seals have likely responded to previous warm periods, no 
attempt is made to explore the extent of these warming periods and how 
ringed seals may have adapted to them. The State of Alaska and another 
commenter similarly suggested that past warming periods were not 
adequately considered. They stated that the survival of ringed seals 
during interglacial periods can be considered better evidence for 
population persistence than predictive models of ice condition for 
species extinction, and that this is a primary reason why listing of 
ringed seals as threatened is not warranted. Greenland's DFHA expressed 
a similar view.
    Response: We are not aware of any available information on ringed 
seal adaptive responses during the interglacial periods. A fundamental 
difficulty in using pre-historic warm periods as analogs for the 
current climate disruption is that the rate of warming in the pre-
historic periods is poorly known. The species' resilience to those 
previous warming events, which may have been slower than the current 
warming, does not necessarily translate into present-day resilience. 
Moreover, there may be cumulative effects from climate warming and 
ocean acidification, or other human impacts, that combine to limit the 
species' resilience to the changes anticipated in the coming decades.
    Comment 24: A peer reviewer commented that the magnitude of the 
impact that increased predation might have relative to mortalities 
associated with other climate related factors like an early spring rain 
or an early break-up in a particular region is not discussed. This 
reviewer also commented that how the suite of predators in a particular 
range might change from predominantly ``on-ice'' species (e.g., polar 
bears) to ``in-water'' species (e.g., sharks and killer whales) and 
what impacts that might have is not addressed.
    Response: Although the relative impacts of the various factors 
cited by the reviewer are no doubt significant to the eventual status 
of ringed seals in various portions of their range, we consider them 
too speculative to evaluate at this time. The reviewer did not provide 
additional data or evidence on which to base such an evaluation.
    Comment 25: A peer reviewer expressed the opinion that the threat 
posed to Arctic ringed seals by polar bear predation should be 
qualified. This reviewer commented that it is unlikely polar bear 
predation would cause significant pup mortality across the entire range 
of the Arctic ringed seal. In addition, this reviewer noted that it is 
assumed that polar bear abundance will remain high as snow conditions 
deteriorate; however, it is expected that polar bear populations will 
decline, which could reduce predator effects on ringed seals. In 
addition, this reviewer commented that ringed seals may also become 
less accessible to polar bears as seasonal sea ice decreases. 
Greenland's DFHA similarly discussed the dynamic relationship between 
polar bears and ringed seals, suggesting that observations of ringed 
seal declines from increased polar bear predation during ice reductions 
are part of the normal predator-prey cycle and should not be over-
interpreted in considering potential impacts of projected changes in 
sea ice habitat.
    Response: ``Significant pup mortality'' from polar bear predation 
would not have to occur ``across the entire range of the Arctic ringed 
seal'' to pose a threat. We recognize that expected declines in polar 
bear populations could lessen predation on ringed seals; however, 
decreased snow cover has also been shown to markedly increase predation 
success by polar bears (Kumlien, 1879; Lydersen et al., 1987; Lydersen 
and Smith, 1989; Hammill and Smith, 1989; Hammill and Smith, 1991; 
Smith et al., 1991; Smith and Lydersen, 1991). While decreased sea ice 
might decrease accessibility of seals to bears, it also may be that the 
decreased extent of ice could concentrate ringed seals, resulting in 
the opposite effect. The possible decreases in predation are 
speculative, while increases in predation associated with decreased 
snow cover have been well documented. Therefore, the best scientific 
and commercial data available show that the threat posed to ringed 
seals by predation is currently moderate, but this threat can be 
expected to increase as snow and sea ice conditions change with a 
warming climate.
    Comment 26: A peer reviewer found the assessment of subsistence 
harvest in the proposed rule reasonable, noting that harvest appears to 
be substantial in some areas of the Arctic, but appears to remain 
sustainable. This reviewer commented that the ISC has been developing a 
harvest monitoring program with personnel assistance from the State of 
Alaska. The Marine Mammal Commission also commented that it does not 
believe that the subsistence harvest of ringed seals in U.S. waters 
constitutes a significant risk factor for Arctic ringed seals, and 
several other commenters expressed similar views regarding subsistence 
harvest in U.S. waters, as well as elsewhere. In contrast, another 
commenter expressed concern that the impact of Native subsistence 
hunting on ringed seals is substantially underestimated. The commenter 
expressed the view that NMFS needs to obtain reliable estimates of 
subsistence harvest of ringed seals such that their conservation status 
can be more closely monitored, in particular considering climate change 
is expected to have impacts on ringed seals and those could be 
exacerbated by other factors such as harvest. This commenter also 
suggested that additional resources should be

[[Page 76727]]

devoted to obtaining these estimates of subsistence harvest, and 
suggested that NMFS institute a harvest monitoring system rather than 
rely on self-reporting.
    A number of commenters, including the ISC and Greenland's DFHA, 
emphasized that ice seals have been a vital subsistence species for 
indigenous people in the Arctic and remain a fundamental resource for 
many northern coastal communities. Some commenters, including the ISC, 
requested that NMFS identify what additional measures would be required 
before the subsistence hunt could be affected by Federal management of 
ringed seals and under what conditions the agency would consider taking 
those additional measures, and this information should be provided to 
residents of all potentially affected communities.
    Response: We recognize the importance of Arctic ringed seals to 
Alaska Native coastal communities. Section 101(b) of the MMPA provides 
an exemption that allows Alaska Natives to take ringed seals for 
subsistence purposes as long as the take is not accomplished in a 
wasteful manner. Section (10)(e) of the ESA also provides an exemption 
from its prohibitions on the taking of endangered or threatened species 
by Alaska Natives for subsistence purposes, provided that such taking 
is not accomplished in a wasteful manner. Although the number of ringed 
seals harvested annually by Alaska Natives is not precisely known or 
comprehensively monitored, ongoing hunter surveys in several 
communities give no indication that the harvest numbers are excessive 
or have a significant impact on the dynamics of the populations 
(Quakenbush et al., 2011). The numbers of seals harvested have likely 
declined substantially in recent decades because the need for food to 
supply sled-dog teams has diminished as snowmobiles have been adopted 
as the primary means of winter transport. The proportion of Alaska 
Natives that make substantial use of marine mammals for subsistence may 
also have declined due to increased availability and use of non-
traditional foods in coastal communities. However, there may also be a 
counterbalancing increase in awareness of health benefits of 
traditional foods compared with non-traditional alternatives.
    Under the MMPA the Alaska stock of ringed seals will be considered 
``depleted'' on the effective date of this listing. In the future, if 
NMFS expressly concludes that harvest of ringed seals by Alaska Natives 
is materially and negatively affecting the species, NMFS may regulate 
such harvests pursuant to sections 101(b) and 103(d) of the MMPA. NMFS 
would have to hold an administrative hearing on the record for such 
proposed regulations. Currently, based on the best available data, the 
subsistence harvest of ringed seals by Alaska Natives appears 
sustainable. If the current situation changes, NMFS will work under co-
management with the ISC (under section 119 of the MMPA) to find the 
best approach to ensure that sustainable subsistence harvest of these 
seals by Alaska Natives can continue into the future. NMFS is also 
continuing to work with the ISC to develop and expand collaborative 
harvest monitoring methods.
    Comment 27: A peer reviewer commented that it is suggested that 
climate change will likely alter patterns of subsistence harvest of 
marine mammals by hunting communities. However, this reviewer noted 
that hunter questionnaire data from five Alaska villages (Quakenbush et 
al., 2011) did not indicate decreases in ringed seal availability at 
any location.
    Response: The alterations to subsistence harvest patterns by 
climate change suggested in the proposed rule are likely to occur at 
some unspecified time in the future, when changes to snow and ice cover 
are predicted to be more pronounced that they are at present. The 
hunter questionnaire data relate to recent, not future, ringed seal 
availability.
    Comment 28: A peer reviewer commented that no information from the 
subsistence community or the ISC is considered in the status review 
report. This reviewer noted that subsistence hunters know a great deal 
about the biology, ecology, behavior, and movement of ringed seals, and 
keep a close watch for changes in the seals relative to environmental 
change. Several related public comments, including from the ISC, 
expressed the opinion that NMFS has not made adequate use of the 
traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of Alaska Natives related to ice 
seals in the listing process. The ISC also suggested that NMFS should 
conduct a TEK study related to ice seals. Another commenter 
specifically suggested that TEK should be sought and incorporated into 
model projections of future snow cover on sea ice; and that the 
adaptive capacity of Arctic ringed seals should be further investigated 
by seeking observations of Native communities, especially those in the 
southern part of its range. This commenter also suggested that NMFS 
should use an empirical static modeling approach (Guisan and Zimmerman, 
2000) to defensibly derive habitat parameters and use TEK to provide 
presence/absence data for model fitting and evaluation.
    Response: The contribution of TEK to the overall understanding of 
ice-associated seal species is greater than commonly acknowledged. Much 
of our basic understanding of the natural history of ice-associated 
seals stems from information imparted by indigenous Arctic hunters and 
observers to the authors who first documented the biology of the 
species in the scientific literature. NMFS recognizes that Alaska 
Native subsistence hunting communities hold much more information that 
is potentially relevant and useful for assessing the conservation 
status of ice seals. Productive exchanges of TEK and scientific 
knowledge between the agency and Alaska Native communities can take 
many forms. Collaborative research projects, for example, provide 
opportunities for scientists and hunters to bring together the most 
effective ideas and techniques from both approaches to gather new 
information and resolve conservation issues. NMFS supports efforts to 
expand reciprocal knowledge-sharing, which can be facilitated through 
our co-management agreements. These efforts require time to build 
networks of relationships with community members, and the ESA does not 
allow us to defer a listing decision in order to collect additional 
information.
    Comment 29: Four peer reviewers expressed the view that while the 
best scientific data available was evaluated in assessing the status of 
the Arctic ringed seal, this information does not provide an adequate 
basis to support the listing proposal for this subspecies. Two of these 
reviewers noted that Arctic ringed seals number in the millions, are 
widely distributed across a vast area and variety of habitats, and have 
a high degree of genetic diversity. They expressed the view that they 
are thus unlikely to be at high risk of major declines due to 
environmental perturbations including catastrophic events, and as such, 
they are not at risk of extinction now or in the foreseeable future, 
and should not be listed as threatened. In addition, these reviewers 
pointed out that the climate model projections suggest there will be 
sufficient snow and ice to support survival and reproduction of Arctic 
ringed seals through mid-century, and they appear to have healthy 
abundant populations across their range. One of these reviewers 
suggested that this was the case for the other subspecies as well, and 
noted that there is therefore still

[[Page 76728]]

time to monitor the status of these populations and their responses to 
changes in ice and snow conditions before any of the demographic 
characteristics considered could be expected to be at any elevated risk 
level.
    In opposing the proposed listing of Arctic ringed seals, several 
related public comments, including from the State of Alaska, Canada's 
DFO, Nunavut's Department of Conservation, and Greenland's DFHA, 
similarly noted that Arctic ringed seals appear to have healthy 
abundant populations across their range. Several commenters suggested 
that the ESA is not intended to list currently healthy abundant species 
that occupy their entire historical ranges. Some of these commenters 
expressed the opinion that if NMFS lists healthy abundant species under 
the ESA based on assessments that consider the potential biological 
consequences of multi-decadal climate forecasts, virtually every 
species could be considered threatened. A few commenters also stated 
that a conclusion that the Arctic ringed seal subspecies will decline 
from millions of seals to being threatened with extinction should be 
accompanied with some level of quantification regarding what 
constitutes being in danger of extinction. Finally, the State of Alaska 
commented that although the monitoring could be enhanced, ADFG's Arctic 
Marine Mammal Program is adequate to detect landscape population level 
patterns and problems, should they arise in the future.
    Response: The ESA defines a threatened species as one that ``is 
likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future 
throughout all or a significant portion of its range'' (16 U.S.C. 
1532(20)). Whether a species is healthy at the time of listing or 
beginning to decline is not the deciding factor. The inquiry requires 
NMFS to consider the status of the species both in the present and 
through the foreseeable future. Having received a petition and 
subsequently having found that the petition presented substantial 
information indicating that listing ringed seals may be warranted (73 
FR 51615; September 4, 2008), we are required to use the best 
scientific and commercial data available to determine whether ringed 
seals satisfy the definition of an endangered or threatened species 
because of any of the five factors identified under section 4(a)(1) of 
the ESA. These data were compiled in the status review report of the 
ringed seal (Kelly et al., 2010a) and summarized in the preamble to the 
proposed rule.
    We agree that Arctic ringed seals are currently thought to be 
distributed throughout their range and number in the millions, are 
widely distributed and genetically diverse, and are not presently in 
danger of extinction. However, these characteristics do not protect 
them from becoming at risk of extinction in the foreseeable future as a 
consequence of widespread habitat loss. Based on the best available 
scientific data, we have concluded that the persistence of Arctic 
ringed seals likely will be challenged as decreases in ice and, 
especially, snow cover lead to increased juvenile mortality from 
premature weaning, hypothermia, and predation. Initially impacts may be 
somewhat ameliorated as the subspecies' range retracts northward with 
sea ice habitat. By the end of this century, however, average snow 
depths are projected to be less than the minimum depths needed for 
successful formation and maintenance of birth lairs throughout a 
substantial portion of the subspecies' range. Thus, within the 
foreseeable future it is likely that the number of Arctic ringed seals 
will decline substantially, and they will no longer persist in 
substantial portions of their range.
    Data were not available to make statistically rigorous inferences 
how Arctic ringed seals will respond to habitat loss over time. We note 
that we currently have no mechanism to detect even major changes in 
ringed seal population size (Taylor et al., 2007). However, the BRT's 
assessment of the severity of the demographic risks posed to the 
persistence of each of the ringed seal subspecies was formalized using 
a numerical scoring system. The BRT judged the risks to Arctic ringed 
seal persistence to be moderate to high within the foreseeable future 
(Table 10; Kelly et al., 2010a). After considering these risks as well 
as the remaining factors from section 4(a)(1) of the ESA, we concluded 
that the Arctic ringed seal is likely to become endangered within the 
foreseeable future (threatened), primarily due to the projected loss of 
sea ice habitat, in particular snow cover.
    Comment 30: A peer reviewer commented that although Baltic and 
Ladoga ringed seals are the most at risk due to their lower abundances 
and limited habitat, there do not appear to be sufficient data 
available to evaluate the risks to their persistence. Similarly, 
several commenters expressed the view that there are insufficient data, 
including on abundance and population trends, to proceed with the 
listing of Arctic ringed seals at this time. Some commenters stated 
that we should defer the listing decision for the Arctic ringed seal in 
particular until more information becomes available. Two commenters 
specifically noted that NMFS has announced that it is conducting large-
scale ice seal aerial surveys, and they requested that NMFS delay the 
listing determination until the results of these surveys become 
available.
    Response: Under the ESA, we must base each listing decision on the 
best available scientific and commercial data available after 
conducting a review of the status of the species and taking into 
account any efforts being made by states or foreign governments to 
protect the species, and we have done so in assessing the status of 
Arctic, Okhotsk, Baltic, and Ladoga ringed seals. These data were 
summarized in the preamble to the proposed rule and are discussed in 
detail in the status review report (see Kelly et al., 2010a). The 
existing body of literature concerning ringed seal population status 
and trends is limited, and additional studies are needed to better 
understand many aspects of ringed seal population dynamics and habitat 
relationships. However, the ESA does not allow us to defer listing 
decisions until additional information becomes available. In reaching a 
final listing determination we have considered the best scientific and 
commercial data available, including the information provided in the 
status review report as well as information received via the peer 
review process and public comment. These data are sufficient to 
conclude that Arctic, Okhotsk, and Baltic ringed seals are likely to 
become endangered within the foreseeable future (threatened) and Ladoga 
ringed seals are in danger of extinction (endangered).

Comments on the Climate Model Projections and the Identification and 
Consideration of Related Habitat Threats

    Comment 31: A commenter noted that studies indicate the risks from 
climate change are substantially greater than those assessed in the 
IPCC's AR4, raising concern that the IPCC climate change projections 
used in the status review report likely underestimate climate change 
risks to ringed seals.
    Response: Although recent observations of annual minimum ice extent 
in the Arctic Ocean have been outside (i.e., below) the majority of 
model runs projected from the most commonly used scenarios, a few 
models exhibit anomalies of a similar magnitude early in the 21st 
century. Nonetheless, the observed sea ice retreat has been faster than 
the consensus projection, which may have occurred either because: (1) 
climate models do

[[Page 76729]]

not have sufficient sea ice sensitivity to the rise in GHG forcing, or 
(2) there is an unusually large contribution in observations from 
natural variability. Many of the same recent years have been 
characterized by near record high ice extents in regions such as the 
Bering Sea, for example. While we recognize the possibility that 
consensus projections may underestimate the future risks to ringed 
seals, the likelihood of that does not seem to be sufficiently 
established to warrant abandonment of the IPCC AR4 as the best 
available scientific basis for projection of future conditions.
    Comment 32: The State of Alaska noted that predicting climate 
change is made more difficult and uncertain by decades long shifts in 
temperature that occur due to such variables as the Pacific Decadal 
Oscillation (PDO).
    Response: Climate models account for PDO variability but the PDO is 
chaotic--the future points at which it will shift between its warm and 
cool phases cannot currently be predicted. In this sense, a specific 
PDO is not predictable in the future. To address this unpredictable 
variability, NMFS used the average from an ensemble of models and model 
runs. The average of the ensemble indicates the expected response 
forced by rising GHGs and aerosol changes. The individual model runs 
that compose the ensemble vary substantially, often trending above or 
below the average, or bouncing back and forth across it. The 
variability among the model runs in the ensemble reflects the 
unpredictability of the PDO and many other factors. We used the range 
of this variability in our projections of future ice conditions, for 
example, to characterize the minimum, mean, and maximum ice 
concentrations in future decades.
    Comment 33: The State of Alaska and another commenter noted that it 
is assumed Arctic ringed seals cannot survive without year-round ice. 
However, they suggested that the current status of the other ringed 
seal subspecies indicates ringed seals can survive without multi-year 
ice.
    Response: Our risk assessment for Arctic ringed seals was not based 
on an assumption that they require sea ice year-round. The threats that 
were scored by the BRT as moderate to high significance were a decrease 
in sea ice habitat suitable for whelping and nursing, and increased 
hypothermia due to insufficient depth or duration of snow cover (Table 
5; Kelly et al., 2010a). Both of these threats are relevant to the 
period of whelping and pup rearing, about mid-March to mid-June for 
Arctic ringed seals. We discussed in the preamble to the proposed rule 
that the projected decreases in sea ice, and especially snow cover, are 
expected to lead to increased pup mortality from premature weaning, 
hypothermia, and predation.
    Comment 34: A commenter expressed the view that sea ice in the 
Arctic has been in decline for a number of years without observed 
detrimental effects on ringed seals, thus calling into question NMFS's 
assumption that future declines in sea ice will inevitably result in 
impacts to ringed seals.
    Response: As noted in the preamble to the proposed rule and 
discussed in detail in the status review report, our present ability to 
detect changes in the Arctic and Okhotsk ringed seal populations is 
limited. There are no population estimates sufficiently precise for use 
as a reference in judging trends. Indices of condition, such as those 
recently reported by ADFG (Quakenbush et al, 2011), are available for 
only a limited portion of the Arctic ringed seal's range and would not 
be expected to detect certain types of detrimental effects, such as an 
increase in pup mortality by predation. Therefore, while NMFS is not 
aware of unequivocal evidence that Arctic or Okhotsk ringed seals have 
declined, the converse is equally true: there is no firm evidence that 
these populations are stable or increasing. Our decision to list these 
subspecies is based primarily on our conclusion for ESA listing Factor 
A that ongoing and projected changes in sea ice habitat pose 
significant threats to the persistence of all of the ringed seal 
subspecies.
    The primary concern about future ringed seal habitat stems from 
projections of inadequate snow depths for birth lair formation and 
maintenance later in the 21st century. Although the model projections 
considered in the status review report indicate a decline in snow depth 
on sea ice has been underway for some years, the average predicted 
depth remains at least slightly greater than the 20 cm minimum for 
lairs. Thus, these projections are consistent with a scenario in which 
little or no impact from climate disruption has yet been felt by Arctic 
ringed seals. The anticipated impacts likely will begin to appear in 
the near future as average snow depth on ice declines.
    Comment 35: The State of Alaska and another commenter suggested 
that the record high winter ice in the Bering Sea from 2007-2010 casts 
some doubt on the determination of the threat of extinction to ringed 
seals. They noted that the climate model projections make it clear that 
winter ice will continue to occur, and that the length of open water 
and changes in snow accumulation are the primary issues. These 
commenters expressed the view that changes in the distribution and 
numbers of ringed seals may occur, but the continued occurrence of 
winter ice, and particularly years where its record extent coincides 
with low summer ice, indicate that a more thorough assessment of seal 
habitat and population responses is needed before the threat of 
extinction can be assessed with any level of certainty.
    Response: The above average ice cover in winter in the Bering Sea 
in 4 of the last 5 years is consistent with natural variability of the 
past 33 years and does not represent a statistically significant 
increase. In any case, as the reviewer notes, the length of the open 
water season and snow depths are the primary issues. Furthermore it is 
the trend, forced from rising GHGs, in the sea ice cover in fall (and 
hence open water) that causes snow depth to decline in the model 
projections.
    Comment 36: A commenter noted that NMFS's current MMPA stock 
assessment report and proposed draft update state that there are 
insufficient data to predict the effects of Arctic climate change on 
the Alaska ringed seal stock, suggesting that predicting future 
population declines based upon climate change effects is speculative.
    Response: NMFS's MMPA stock assessments for ice-associated seals 
need to be updated, which NMFS is in the process of doing to reflect 
new data and recent analyses from ESA status reviews.
    Comment 37: A commenter noted that elders and hunters interviewed 
in 2011 for a Kawerak research project on TEK of ice seals and walruses 
reported changes in ice and weather that complicated hunter access, but 
they also explained that walrus, bearded, and ringed seals were as 
healthy as ever. The commenter also noted that multiple hunters in 
these interviews also reported that marine mammals have shifted their 
migrations to match the timing of earlier ice break-ups. Individual 
observations regarding ice seal ecology, health, abundance, behavior, 
and habitat were also provided by a number of coastal Alaska residents, 
primarily Native hunters. Many of these comments, including those from 
the ISC, indicated that although the effects of a warming Arctic have 
been observed for a number of years, ringed seals appear healthy and 
abundant, and any significant decline does not appear to be 
sufficiently imminent to warrant listing Arctic

[[Page 76730]]

ringed seals as threatened under the ESA at this time.
    Response: TEK provides a relevant and important source of 
information on the ecology of Arctic ringed seals, and we have 
carefully reviewed the comments submitted from individuals with TEK on 
ringed seals and climate change. We do not find that these observations 
conflict with our conclusions. As we have noted in response to other 
related comments, Arctic ringed seals are not presently in danger of 
extinction, but are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable 
future.
    Comment 38: Greenland's DFHA commented that the most pessimistic 
scenarios for consequences of sea ice loss on polar bears estimate a 
reduction in the polar bear population to one-third of its present size 
by 2099, and that if the densities of polar bears and Arctic ringed 
seals continue to stay correlated in the ratio of 1:200, this implies 
that there would still be more than 2 million ringed seals.
    Response: The ratio between ringed seal and polar bear densities, 
and the speculation that such a ratio would remain constant in the face 
of extreme changes in the Arctic ecosystem, are interesting as a 
conceptual exercise but cannot be considered the best scientific and 
commercial information for the purpose of our ESA listing decision.
    Comment 39: Greenland's DFHA suggested that if the projected 
changes in sea ice cover are realized, ringed seal habitat will likely 
shift northward of the range of Inuit hunters. They commented that in 
recent years new ringed seal habitat has emerged in northern areas 
where there is not hunting, which has actually created a new sanctuary 
for ringed seals in what must be some of the most pristine habitats on 
earth.
    Response: The current levels of subsistence hunting do not threaten 
ringed seal populations. If sanctuaries from human or other predation 
were to emerge, as the commenter suggested, this could moderate, to 
some extent, losses due to poor snow and ice conditions. However, given 
the relatively small impact of hunting, and the potentially very large 
impact from the loss of pupping habitat, such sanctuaries would have 
limited benefit for the declining population status over time.
    Comment 40: Some commenters argued that ocean acidification should 
be determined to be a significant threat, in particular when considered 
cumulatively with other climate change impacts. Another commenter 
disagreed, and felt that NMFS more clearly discussed the uncertainties 
associated with assessing the potential impacts of ocean acidification 
in the previous ESA listing determinations for ribbon and spotted 
seals.
    Response: As we discussed in the preamble to the proposed rule, the 
impact of ocean acidification on ringed seals is expected to be 
primarily through changes in community composition, but the nature and 
timing of these changes is uncertain. The BRT members tended to rank 
the threat from ocean acidification as relatively low, but also noted 
the very low degree of certainty about the nature and magnitude of 
potential effects on ringed seals (Tables 5-8; Kelly et al., 2010a). 
However, the BRT did consider cumulative effects as part of the threats 
assessment scoring procedure, as evidenced by the fact that the overall 
score for each ESA section 4(a)(1) factor tended to be as high or 
higher than the score assigned for individual threats within each 
factor.

Comments on the Identification and Consideration of Other Threats

    Comment 41: A commenter expressed the opinion that the listing of 
ringed seals is related to the elevated number of sick or dead ringed 
seals reported in 2011. This commenter noted, however, that testing has 
not identified a cause for this apparent disease outbreak, and that the 
significance of the mortalities to the population as a whole is 
unclear.
    Response: The proposed listing of Arctic ringed seals is not 
related to the disease outbreak referred to by the commenter, which 
began after the proposal was published. The elevated numbers of sick or 
dead ringed seals in the Arctic and Bering Strait regions of Alaska 
beginning in July 2011 led to the declaration of an unusual mortality 
event (UME) by NMFS under the MMPA on December 20, 2011. The underlying 
cause of this UME is unknown and remains under focused expert 
investigation. We acknowledged in the preamble to the proposed rule 
that abiotic and biotic changes to ringed seal habitat could lead to 
exposure to new pathogens or new levels of virulence. However, based on 
the best scientific and commercial data available, we continue to 
consider the potential threats to ringed seals from disease to be low.
    Comment 42: A few commenters expressed the opinion that existing 
regulatory mechanisms in the United States and elsewhere are not 
adequate to address the factors driving climate disruption (i.e., 
GHGs). One of these commenters suggested that U.S. agencies are either 
failing to implement or only partially implementing laws for GHGs, and 
that the continued failure of the U.S. Government and international 
community to implement effective and comprehensive GHG reduction 
measures places ringed seals at ever-increasing risk, where the worst-
case IPCC scenarios are becoming more likely.
    Response: While some progress is being made in addressing 
anthropogenic GHG emissions, we recognize in our analysis under ESA 
listing Factor D that current mechanisms do not effectively regulate 
the anthropogenic processes influencing global climate change and the 
associated changes to ringed seal habitat, and that this is 
contributing to the risks posed to ringed seals by these emissions. 
Further, we note that our analysis considered future emissions 
scenarios that did not involve dramatic and substantial reductions in 
GHG emissions.
    Comment 43: Some commenters suggested that NMFS should re-examine 
its conclusion that fisheries do not threaten ringed seals because a 
warming climate could lead to shifts in commercial fisheries that could 
affect the seal's food base.
    Response: The possible advent of new commercial fisheries, and the 
nature and magnitude of ecosystem responses, are speculative. Although 
there are possible risks, those should be mitigated through appropriate 
management of new fisheries. In U.S. waters, the intent to conduct such 
responsible management is evident in the Arctic Fishery Management Plan 
(North Pacific Fishery Management Council, 2009), which establishes a 
framework for sustainably managing Arctic marine resources.
    Comment 44: Some commenters stated that offshore oil and gas 
development should be determined to be a threat to ringed seals in part 
because there is no technology available to effectively contain or 
recover spilled oil in ice covered waters, and a large oil spill could 
be devastating to these seals. In addition one of these commenters 
emphasized that extensive offshore oil developments are currently 
underway within the range of Arctic ringed seals, and additional 
drilling is proposed in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Other commenters 
stated that offshore oil and gas development, as currently regulated, 
does not pose a significant threat to Arctic ringed seals.
    Response: Although a large oil spill could cause substantial 
injury, mortality, and indirect impacts to seals in the area, the risks 
posed to persistence of the ringed seal subspecies as a whole are low 
and are possible to mitigate by preventive measures, at least relative 
to the much more pervasive

[[Page 76731]]

risks from climate change and habitat loss.

Comments on the Status Determinations for the Ringed Seal Subspecies

    Comment 45: The State of Alaska, Canada's DFO, Nunavut's Department 
of Environment, and several other commenters expressed the opinion that 
Arctic ringed seals should not be listed because there are no 
scientific data demonstrating any observed past or present adverse 
impacts on ringed seal populations resulting from sea ice recession or 
other environmental changes attributed to climate change. The State of 
Alaska also extended this comment to the other subspecies of ringed 
seals proposed for listing. These commenters suggested that the 
determinations rely on the results of predictive models and speculation 
about future impacts, which they argued provide insufficient 
justification. Some of these commenters noted that in contrast, the 
polar bear ESA determination relied upon data for some populations that 
suggested a link between observed population declines or other 
population vital rates and climate change. Further, the State of Alaska 
and another commenter suggested that climate model projections should 
be considered as hypotheses to be tested with data collected over time.
    Response: We have concluded that the best scientific and commercial 
data available, which are discussed in detail in the status review 
report and are summarized in this notice, provide sufficient evidence 
that: (1) Ringed seals are strongly ice-associated and the pupping and 
nursing seasons, in particular, are adapted to the phenology of ice and 
snow; (2) reductions in sea ice and in particular the depth and 
duration of snow cover on sea ice are very likely to occur within the 
foreseeable future; (3) without the protection of lairs, ringed seals, 
in particular newborn pups, are vulnerable to freezing and predation; 
(4) the rates of environmental change will be rapid in the coming 
centuries and may outpace possible adaptive responses; and (5) the 
rapid changes in sea ice habitat are likely to decrease the ringed seal 
populations to levels where they are in danger of extinction. Because 
Arctic ringed seals stay with the ice as it annually advances and 
retreats, the southern edge of this subspecies' range may initially 
shift northward. However, whether Arctic ringed seals will continue to 
move north with retreating ice over the deeper, less productive Arctic 
Basin waters and whether species that they prey on will also move north 
is uncertain. Land boundaries will limit the ability of Okhotsk, 
Baltic, and Ladoga ringed seals to shift their range northward in 
response to deteriorating ice and snow conditions. Regarding the 
climate model forecasts, the BRT analyses used simulations from six 
CMIP Phase 3 (CMIP3) models prepared for the IPCC's AR4, which 
represent the scientific consensus view on the causes and future of 
climate change and constitute the best scientific and commercial data 
available. Based on this information, and after considering the five 
ESA section 4(a)(1) factors, we have determined that the Arctic, 
Okhotsk, and Baltic subspecies are likely to become endangered within 
the foreseeable future throughout their ranges (i.e., threatened under 
the ESA). Ladoga ringed seals are also faced with additional threats 
and the population has been greatly reduced from historical numbers. We 
have therefore determined that an endangered listing is appropriate for 
this subspecies.
    With regard to the comment that the climate model projections 
should be considered as hypotheses, with data collected over time to 
test the hypotheses, taking that approach in lieu of listing is not an 
option under the ESA. If the best scientific and commercial data 
available indicate that a species satisfies the definition of 
threatened or endangered, then NMFS must list it. In time, as new data 
become available, NMFS may de-list a species, change its listing 
status, or maintain its listing status. The determination here is based 
on the best scientific and commercial data that is presently available.
    Comment 46: The Marine Mammal Commission recommended that before 
listing the Arctic ringed seal subspecies, NMFS first determine whether 
ringed seals in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago might be recognized as 
a discrete and significant population and excluded from the listing due 
to limited change in physical and ecological conditions projected for 
that area. A related comment from Canada's DFO expressed the view that 
the subspecies-wide listing of Arctic ringed seals does not address the 
variable spatial and temporal scales of threats that the different 
populations of Arctic ringed seals face. This commenter noted, for 
example, that while in the southern parts of its range certain Arctic 
ringed seal populations might be compromised if warming trends 
continue, in other Arctic regions ringed seal habitat could be expected 
to remain.
    Response: Under our ``Policy Regarding the Recognition of Distinct 
Vertebrate Population Segments Under the Endangered Species Act'' (61 
FR 4722; February 7, 1996) two elements are considered when evaluating 
whether a population segment qualifies as a distinct population segment 
(DPS) under the ESA: (1) The discreteness of the population segment in 
relation to the remainder of the species or subspecies to which it 
belongs; and (2) the significance of the population segment to the 
species or subspecies to which it belongs. If a population segment is 
discrete and significant (i.e., it is a DPS), its evaluation for 
endangered or threatened status will be based on the ESA's definitions 
of those terms and a review of the factors enumerated in section 4(a).
    A population segment of a vertebrate species may be considered 
discrete if it satisfies either one of the following conditions: (1) it 
is markedly separated from other populations of the same taxon as a 
consequence of physical, physiological, ecological, or behavioral 
factors; or (2) it is delimited by international governmental 
boundaries within which differences in control of exploitation, 
management of habitat, conservation status, or regulatory mechanisms 
exist that are significant in light of section 4(a)(1)(D) of the ESA. 
As summarized in the preamble to the proposed rule and discussed in 
detail in the status review report (p. 35-39), we found no evidence of 
discrete segments within the Arctic ringed seal population, including 
within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Therefore, we did not take the 
next step of determining whether any population segment is significant 
to the taxon to which it belongs.
    Comment 47: A commenter suggested that if NMFS determines that any 
of the ringed seal subspecies are threatened under the ESA, it should 
adopt the approach used by FWS for species such as the walrus and 
designate them as candidate species, or alternatively list them as 
species of concern. This commenter expressed the opinion that listing 
the species as candidate species or species of concern would avoid 
unnecessary expenditure of resources while providing for the option to 
take appropriate action under the ESA if it becomes necessary.
    Response: Although NMFS and FWS define candidate species the same 
way in their joint regulations, the two agencies have slightly 
different interpretations of the term. FWS candidate species are those 
species for which FWS has sufficient information to support an ESA 
listing but for which issuance of a proposed rule is precluded due to 
higher priority listings (61 FR 64481; December 5, 1996). Therefore,

[[Page 76732]]

FWS has already determined that its candidate species warrant listing 
under the ESA. In contrast, NMFS uses the term ``candidate species'' to 
refer to ``(1) species that are the subject of a petition to list and 
for which NMFS has determined that listing may be warranted, pursuant 
to section 4(b)(3)(A), and (2) species for which NMFS has determined, 
following a status review, that listing is warranted (whether or not 
they are the subject of a petition)'' (69 FR 19976; April 15, 2004). 
Regardless, once a species has been proposed for listing, section 
4(b)(6)(A) of the ESA does not allow us to issue a ``warranted but 
precluded'' finding. Such a finding is only permissible at the time of 
a 12-month finding (see section 4(b)(3)(B)), not a final rule. NMFS 
defines a ``species of concern'' as a species that is not being 
actively considered for listing under the ESA, but for which 
significant concerns or uncertainties regarding its biological status 
and/or threats exist (69 FR 19975; April 15, 2004). This is not the 
case for Arctic, Okhotsk, Baltic, or Ladoga ringed seals.
    Comment 48: A commenter noted that the Alaska stock of ringed seals 
is not listed as depleted or strategic under the MMPA by NMFS, which 
they suggested indicates the absence of scientific data or consensus 
that these populations are currently threatened or in significant 
decline.
    Response: The absence of a depleted designation does not mean that 
a species is not threatened under the ESA. Similarly, the absence of a 
threatened designation does not mean a species or population stock is 
not depleted under the MMPA. Under both the ESA and the MMPA, these 
determinations are based on reviews of the best scientific and 
commercial data available, which is the process NMFS is undertaking 
here.
    The criteria for depleted or strategic status under the MMPA also 
differ from those for threatened or endangered species under the ESA. A 
species or population stock is considered depleted under the MMPA if it 
is determined through rulemaking to be below its optimum sustainable 
population (OSP) or if it is listed as threatened or endangered under 
the ESA. Section 3(9) of the MMPA (16 U.S.C. 1362(9)) defines OSP as 
``the number of animals which will result in the maximum productivity 
of the population or species, keeping in mind the carrying capacity of 
the habitat and the health of the ecosystem of which they form a 
constituent element.'' Under the MMPA, the term ``strategic stock'' 
means a marine mammal stock: (1) for which the level of human-caused 
mortality exceeds the maximum number of animals that may be removed 
(not including natural mortalities) while allowing the stock to reach 
or maintain its OSP; (2) based on the best available scientific 
information, is declining and likely to be listed as threatened under 
the ESA; or (3) is listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA. 
While we may consider MMPA stock assessment information, our 
determination as to whether the Arctic ringed seal meets the definition 
of a threatened or endangered species must be based on an assessment of 
the threats according to section 4 of the ESA.
    Comment 49: Several commenters, including Canada's DFO and 
Nunavut's Department of Environment, expressed the view that listing 
the ringed seal subspecies as threatened is inconsistent with the 
IUCN's listing of ringed seals among species of ``least concern.''
    Response: While we may review the assessment processes and 
conclusions of other expert organizations such as the IUCN, our 
determination as to whether the ringed seal subspecies meet the 
definition of threatened or endangered must be an independent one based 
on an assessment of the threats according to section 4 of the ESA. 
After reviewing the best scientific and commercial data available, we 
have determined that Arctic, Okhotsk, and Baltic, ringed seals are 
likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future (threatened) 
and that Ladoga ringed seals are in danger of extinction (endangered).
    Comment 50: The Marine Mammal Commission recommended that NMFS re-
evaluate individual and cumulative threats to the Baltic and Ladoga 
subspecies of ringed seals and consider listing these species as 
endangered. The Commission noted that the Baltic and Ladoga subspecies 
are greatly reduced from historical numbers and are subject to a range 
of threats in addition to reduction in ice habitat, including mortality 
in fishing gear, industrial pollution, and for Ladoga ringed seals, 
disturbance of summer haul-out site areas, and likely increased risk of 
predation as lair conditions deteriorate.
    Response: With regard to Baltic ringed seals, we expressly 
recognized the threats identified by the Commission in the preamble to 
the propose rule. The BRT judged the risks posed by those threats to be 
low to moderate at present. In weighing the immediacy and magnitude of 
the threats posed to Baltic ringed seals, we continue to conclude that 
Baltic ringed seals are likely to become endangered within the 
foreseeable future, rather than that they are in danger of extinction.
    We have also considered the Commission's comments and information 
regarding Ladoga ringed seals. After reanalyzing the factors affecting 
Ladoga ringed seals, we agree that greater weight should be given to 
the range of threats affecting these seals, and in particular the 
severity of the threats posed by loss of ice and snow and mortality in 
fishing gear. As noted in the preamble to the proposed rule, threats 
such as drowning of seals in fishing gear and disturbance from human 
activities are conservation concerns for Ladoga ringed seals that could 
exacerbate the effects to these seals due to climate change and habitat 
loss. There is evidence that seal-fisheries conflicts continue, and 
that bycatch of seals in fishing nets is a significant source of 
mortality (Verevkin et al., 2010). Medvedev and Sipil[auml] (2010) also 
reported that in the north portion of Lake Ladoga there has been a 
marked decrease in snow cover and thickness of snow drifts. They noted 
that the importance of this northern part of the lake as breeding 
habitat is likely to increase as ice cover decreases or disappears in 
southern Lake Ladoga. We have therefore concluded in our analysis of 
the five ESA section 4(a)(1) factors that the risks to Ladoga ringed 
seals under listing Factor A (``The Present or Threatened Destruction, 
Modification, or Curtailment of its Habitat or Range'') and to a lesser 
extent Factor D (``Inadequacy of Existing Regulatory Mechanisms'') and 
Factor E (``Other Natural or Manmade Factors Affecting the Species' 
Continued Existence'') are collectively significantly contributing to 
the risk of extinction for this landlocked population. We note that 
Kovacs et al. (2012) cited similar threats in classifying the Ladoga 
ringed seal as endangered according to the IUCN Red List classification 
criteria. After reconsidering the ESA section 4(a)(1) factors in light 
of the Commission's comments and the new information discussed above, 
and taking into consideration other relevant factors, including 
conservation efforts and special designations for this population, we 
have determined that Ladoga ringed seals are ``in danger of 
extinction,'' and are now listing them as endangered in this final 
rule.

Comments Related to Subsistence Harvest of Ringed Seals

    Comment 51: Several comments received, including from the ISC, 
expressed concern that Alaska Natives who harvest ice seals, and all of 
the coastal communities, will likely be disproportionately affected by 
the listing of Arctic ringed seals as

[[Page 76733]]

threatened; and that the listing could cause hardship in the form of 
restrictions being placed on subsistence hunting of the seals, and 
could also result in other restrictions that could impair economic 
development. Some of these commenters expressed concern that the 
listing could also result in additional unfunded mandates, such as 
monitoring of the seal harvest.
    Response: As discussed above, the MMPA and ESA exempt subsistence 
takes by Alaska Natives from the marine mammal take prohibitions. 
Subsistence harvest of ringed seals by Alaska Natives appears 
sustainable and does not pose a threat to the populations. If the 
current situation changes, we will work under the co-management 
agreement with the ISC to find the best approach to ensure that 
sustainable subsistence harvest of these seals by Alaska Natives 
continues. Protection under the ESA does not automatically result in 
specific data collection and reporting requirements for the species. 
However, benefits of listing a species under the ESA can include 
enhanced funding and research opportunities that might address aspects 
of the harvest for a listed species. In addition, when a species is 
listed under the ESA, additional protections apply that promote the 
conservation of the species and therefore have the potential to benefit 
subsistence harvests. For example, section 7 of the ESA requires 
Federal agencies to ensure that the activities they authorize, fund, or 
carry out are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the 
species or to destroy or adversely modify its critical habitat. If a 
Federal action may affect a listed species or its critical habitat, the 
action agency must enter into consultation with NMFS.
    Comment 52: The ISC expressed the view that, should Arctic ringed 
seals be listed under the ESA, the Alaska Native community should have 
a strong role in determining the terms of subsequent management, 
including (1) representation on the recovery team, (2) the 
identification of critical habitat, (3) identification of criteria that 
must be met before any changes could be required in the harvest of 
ringed seals or trade in their parts, (4) identification of research 
priorities, and (5) identification of a mechanism for distribution of 
funds available for research and management. Some other commenters 
similarly suggested that local Native subsistence users should be 
involved directly and have primary roles in any subsistence-related 
management or monitoring activities involving ringed seals.
    Response: We recognize the importance of ringed seals to the Alaska 
Native community, as well as the expertise and particular knowledge the 
Alaska Native hunting communities possess regarding the species and its 
habitats. We are committed to meaningful involvement of stakeholders, 
including the Alaska Native Community, throughout any recovery planning 
process. Critical habitat will be proposed in subsequent rulemaking. We 
are soliciting comments on the identification of critical habitat (see 
DATES, ADDRESSES, and Public Comments Solicited for additional 
information). We encourage those with expertise and understanding of 
those physical or biological features which are essential to the 
conservation of the Arctic ringed seal and which may require special 
management to submit written comments.
    In the response to comment 26 above, we explained the criteria that 
must be satisfied for any regulation of subsistence harvest of ringed 
seals or trade in their parts to occur under the MMPA.
    We appreciate the ISC's interest in identifying research priorities 
and a mechanism to distribute funds for ice seal research and 
management. The ISC's Ice Seal Management Plan identifies its 
biological and subsistence research recommendations for ice seals. The 
ISC has provided this management plan to NMFS and we are taking the 
information into consideration in planning future research (the ISC has 
also made a copy of this plan available at our web site; see 
ADDRESSES).

Comments on the ESA Process and Related Legal and Policy Issues

    Comment 53: NMFS received comments that we should consult directly 
with all of the Alaska Native communities that could potentially be 
affected by the proposed listings, hold public hearings in each of 
these communities, and consult directly with the ISC on the listings. 
The ISC stated that they protest the lack of consultation, request an 
explanation from NMFS, and require a commitment to be involved in all 
future aspects of the listing process prior to any future public 
announcement. Some commenters, including the ISC, also expressed 
concern that without holding hearings in more communities where a 
majority of the ice seal hunters live, these communities were not able 
to provide informed comments. In addition, one commenter stated there 
is confusion and frustration in the Alaska Native community regarding 
the listing process and harvest implications, and suggested that a 
better process is needed to ensure that all stakeholders have an 
opportunity to learn about and understand the proposed rules and their 
implications. We received several comments expressing concern that 
consultation with Alaska coastal communities and local leaders was 
inadequate. One commenter asserted that the Inuit of Alaska, Canada, 
Russia, and Greenland should all play a central consultative role in 
any decision that could affect them in relation to wildlife food 
sources and wildlife management regimes.
    Response: NMFS has coordinated with Alaska Native communities 
regarding management issues related to ice seals through co-management 
organizations, particularly the ISC. NMFS discussed the listing 
petitions with the ISC, and provided updates regarding the timeline for 
the ringed seal status review. Following publication of the proposed 
listing determination, we notified the ISC of the proposal and 
requested comments on the proposed rule. NMFS remains committed to 
working with Alaska Natives on conservation and subsistence use of 
ringed seals.
    We acknowledge the value of face-to-face meetings, and NMFS held 
three public meetings in: (1) Anchorage, Alaska, on March 7, 2011; (2) 
Barrow, Alaska, on March 22, 2011; and (3) Nome, Alaska, on April 5, 
2011. The logistical difficulties with holding additional hearings in 
other remote communities made it impractical to do so. We instead used 
other methods to provide opportunities for the public to submit 
comments both verbally and in writing. With assistance from the North 
Slope and Northwest Arctic boroughs, we provided teleconferencing 
access to the Barrow hearing from outlying communities in the North 
Slope Borough and from Kotzebue. The public hearings in Anchorage and 
Barrow were announced in the Federal Register on February 22, 2011 (76 
FR 9733), and the public hearing in Nome was announced in the Federal 
Register on March 18, 2011 (76 FR 14882). The communities of Kaktovik, 
Wainwright, Point Lay, Point Hope, Nuiqsut, Anaktuvuk Pass, and 
Kotzebue participated in the Barrow hearing via teleconferencing. The 
public hearings were attended by approximately 88 people. In response 
to comments received during the public comment period that indicated 
some tribes may wish to consult on the proposed rule, we also contacted 
potentially affected tribes by mail and offered them the opportunity to 
consult on the proposed action.
    We recognize the value of ringed seals to the Inuit of Canada, 
Alaska, Russia, and Greenland, and we have considered

[[Page 76734]]

all of the comments received from interested parties in our final 
determination. Further, we note that E.O. 13175 outlines specific 
responsibilities of the Federal Government in matters affecting the 
interests of recognized tribes in the contiguous 48 states and in 
Alaska. We have met those obligations in the development of this final 
action.
    Comment 54: The State of Alaska commented that NMFS did not involve 
the State in a meaningful manner in either the development of the 
status review report or the proposed listing rule.
    Response: We sent a copy of the 90-day petition finding to ADFG and 
considered all of the comments and information submitted in response to 
this finding in the development of the status review report and the 
proposed rule. We also provided funding to ADFG to analyze information 
and samples collected from Alaska Native subsistence harvest of ringed 
seals to make these data available for inclusion in the status review 
report. Although reports on the results of this work were submitted 
after the status review report was completed and the proposed rule was 
published, we have considered this information in our final 
determination. During the initial public comment period, we sent a copy 
of the proposed rule to ADFG and the Alaska Department of Natural 
Resources (ADNR), and in those mailings noted the Internet availability 
of the proposed rule, status review report, and other related 
materials. In response to requests received, including from the State 
of Alaska, we extended the public comment period 45 days to provide 
additional time for submission of comments. We have thoroughly 
considered the comments submitted by the State of Alaska, and these 
comments are addressed in this final rule.
    Comment 55: Some commenters expressed the opinion that the ESA is 
not intended as a means to regulate potential impacts from climate 
change, or that the primary potential threats to ringed seals 
identified are the result of a global phenomenon that cannot be 
effectively addressed through the ESA, and thus the proposed listings 
will not provide a significant conservation benefit.
    Response: First, this rulemaking does not regulate impacts from 
climate change. Rather, it lists certain species as threatened or 
endangered, thereby establishing certain protections for them under the 
ESA. Second, section 4(b)(1)(A) of the ESA states that the Secretary 
shall make listing determinations solely on the basis of the best 
scientific and commercial data available after conducting a review of 
the status of the species and taking into account efforts to protect 
the species. Based on our review of the best available information on 
the status of Arctic, Okhotsk, Baltic, and Ladoga ringed seals, and 
efforts currently being made to protect these subspecies, we conclude 
that Arctic, Okhotsk, and Baltic ringed seals should be listed as 
threatened and Ladoga ringed seals should be listed as endangered. Our 
supporting analysis is provided in this final rule and is supplemented 
by our responses to peer review and public comments. While listing does 
not have a direct impact on the loss of sea ice or the reduction of 
GHGs, it may indirectly enhance national and international cooperation 
and coordination of conservation efforts; enhance research programs; 
and encourage the development of mitigation measures that could help 
slow population declines. In addition, the development of a recovery 
plan will guide efforts intended to ensure the long-term survival and 
eventual recovery of Arctic ringed seals.
    Comment 56: Several commenters, including the State of Alaska and 
the ISC, expressed the view that ringed seals and their habitat are 
adequately protected by existing international agreements, conservation 
programs, and laws such as the MMPA.
    Response: We recognize that there are existing regulatory 
mechanisms, such as the MMPA, that include protections for ringed 
seals. However, declining to list a species under the ESA because it is 
generally protected under other laws such as the MMPA would not be 
consistent with the ESA, which requires us to list a species based on 
specified factors and after considering conservation efforts being made 
to protect the species. As discussed in our analysis under ESA listing 
Factor A, a primary concern about the conservation status of the ringed 
seal stems from the likelihood that its sea ice habitat has been 
modified by the warming climate and that the scientific consensus 
projections are for continued and perhaps accelerated warming for the 
foreseeable future. While we acknowledge that there is some progress 
being made in addressing anthropogenic GHG emissions, we also recognize 
under listing Factor D that current mechanisms do not effectively 
regulate the anthropogenic factors that influence global climate change 
and the associated changes to ringed seal habitat.
    Comment 57: The State of Alaska commented that NMFS's proposed 
listing of the Arctic ringed seal would interfere directly with 
Alaska's management of ringed seals and their habitat and would 
therefore harm Alaska's sovereign interests. The State also commented 
that NMFS's listing determination impedes Alaska's ability to implement 
its own laws by displacing State statutes and regulations addressing 
Alaska's wildlife and natural resources generally, and ringed seals 
specifically.
    Response: The ESA does not preclude the State from managing ringed 
seals or their habitat. We disagree that the listing of a species under 
the ESA would displace a specific state law or otherwise impede the 
State's ability to implement its own laws. We note that in 2009 NMFS 
and ADFG entered into a cooperative agreement for the conservation of 
threatened and endangered species pursuant to ESA section 6(c)(1).
    Comment 58: The State of Alaska commented that NMFS's consideration 
of the State's formal conservation measures designed to improve the 
habitat and food supply of ringed seals is extremely limited, and 
without any supporting analysis. Such limited consideration of the 
State's conservation programs fails to comply with NMFS's affirmative 
statutory obligation under ESA section 4(b) and NMFS's Policy for the 
Evaluation of Conservation Efforts.
    Response: The ESA provides that NMFS shall make listing 
determinations solely on the basis of the best scientific and 
commercial data available and after conducting a review of the status 
of the species and taking into account those efforts, if any, of any 
state or foreign nation to protect such species. NMFS has developed a 
specific Policy for Evaluation of Conservation Efforts (68 FR 15100; 
March 28, 2003) that identifies criteria for determining whether 
formalized conservation efforts that have yet to be implemented or to 
show effectiveness contribute to making listing a species as threatened 
or endangered unnecessary.
    The State of Alaska asserts that it has implemented laws, 
regulations, and mitigation measures that are generally aimed at 
protecting ice seals and their prey. These ``measures'' (the most 
relevant of which are summarized below), however, are not specifically 
directed toward the conservation of ringed seals and their ice habitat. 
For example, the mitigation measures referenced by the State aim to 
minimize the impact of oil and gas operations, rather than proactively 
or specifically to conserve the species. Moreover, the threats to 
ringed seals stem principally from habitat loss associated with global 
climate change, a threat the State could not single-handedly mitigate. 
Under

[[Page 76735]]

NMFS's policy and the ESA, notwithstanding state conservation efforts, 
``if the best available scientific and commercial data indicate that 
the species meets the definition of `endangered species' or `threatened 
species' on the day of the listing decision, then we must proceed with 
the appropriate rule-making activity under section 4 of the Act,'' 
i.e., list the species (68 FR 15115; March 28, 2003).
    Finally, in the preamble to the proposed rule we described our 
consideration of the effects of existing programs on the extinctions 
risk of the four ringed seal subspecies proposed for listing. In 
response to these comments from the State of Alaska, we add the 
following details about the State of Alaska's regulatory programs.
    Under the Submerged Lands Act, the State of Alaska has authority 
over the submerged lands and resources therein, within an area 
extending from the mean high tide line to 3 nautical miles offshore. 
The ADNR Division of Oil and Gas (DOG) develops mitigation measures and 
lessee advisories as part of its best interest finding process for 
area-wide oil and gas lease sales. The North Slope Area-wide and 
Beaufort Sea Area-wide lease sales have the potential to affect ringed 
seals. Mitigation measures and lessee advisories identified for these 
lease sales include advisories that ESA-listed and candidate species 
may occur in the lease sale area, that lessees shall comply with 
recommended protection measures for these species, and that lessees 
must also comply with MMPA provisions. Other provisions to protect 
certain concentrations of resources and to protect subsistence harvest 
could provide some incidental benefit to ringed seals.
    The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's (ADEC) 
mission involves the permitting and authorization of actions relating 
to oil and gas development, oil spill prevention and response, 
pollutant discharge, and other activities affecting Alaska's land and 
waters in the Arctic. State of Alaska solid waste management, water 
quality, wastewater, air quality, and vehicle emission standards are 
found in the Alaska Administrative Code (AAC) at 18 AAC 60, 18 AAC 70, 
18 AAC 72, 18 AAC 50, and 18 AAC 52, respectively. Oil spill 
contingency plans are required under Alaska Statute AS 46.04.030 and at 
18 AAC 75 for crude oil tankers, non-crude vessels and barges, oil and 
gas exploration facilities, oil flow lines and gathering lines, and for 
certain non-crude oil terminals and non-tank vessels. The ADEC 
contaminated sites cleanup process is governed by Alaska Statutes at 
Title 46 and regulations at 18 AAC 75 and 18 AAC 78.
    We acknowledge that the State of Alaska's regulatory regime may 
provide some general benefits to ringed seals and their habitat. 
However, these laws and regulations do not reduce or mitigate in any 
material way the principal threats posed to Arctic ringed seals from 
the projected changes in sea ice habitat. As a result, they do not 
change our extinction risk assessment within this final listing 
determination.
    Comment 59: Several comments were received regarding the proposed 
4(d) rules requesting additional analyses to support the conclusion 
that they are necessary and advisable and petitioning NMFS to establish 
certain limitations on the application of those rules, such as 
excluding activities occurring outside the range of any of the 
subspecies of ringed seals listed as threatened.
    Response: For species listed as threatened, section 4(d) of the ESA 
requires the Secretary to issue such regulations as are deemed 
necessary and advisable to provide for the conservation of the species. 
Such 4(d) protective regulations may prohibit, with respect to 
threatened species, some or all of the acts that section 9(a) of the 
ESA prohibits with respect to endangered species. Both the section 9(a) 
prohibitions and section 4(d) regulations apply to all individuals, 
organizations, and agencies subject to U.S. jurisdiction. On December 
10, 2010 (75 FR 77476), we proposed to issue protective regulations for 
ringed seals under section 4(d) of the ESA to include all of the 
prohibitions in section 9(a)(1) based on a preliminary finding that 
such regulations were necessary and advisable for the conservation of 
the species. As explained above, in light of public comments and upon 
further review, we have determined that such regulations are not 
necessary at this time. The Arctic, Okhotsk, and Baltic subspecies 
appear sufficiently abundant to withstand typical year-to-year 
variation and natural episodic perturbations in the near term. The 
principal threat to these subspecies of ringed seals is habitat 
alteration stemming from climate change within the foreseeable future. 
This is a long-term threat and the consequences for ringed seals will 
manifest themselves over the next several decades. Finally, ringed 
seals currently benefit from existing protections under the MMPA, and 
activities that may take listed species and involve a Federal action 
will still be subject to consultation under section 7(a)(2) of the ESA 
to ensure such actions will not jeopardize the continued existence of 
the species. We therefore conclude that it is unlikely that the 
proposed section 4(d) regulations would provide appreciable 
conservation benefits. As a result, we have concluded that the 4(d) 
regulations are not necessary at this time. Such regulations could be 
promulgated at some future time if warranted by new information.
    Comment 60: Comments were received that critical habitat is both 
prudent and determinable; other comments were received that critical 
habitat is not currently determinable and would require extensive 
additional study.
    Response: Section 4(a)(3) of the ESA requires that, to the maximum 
extent practicable and determinable, critical habitat be designated 
concurrently with the listing of a species. Critical habitat is not 
determinable when information sufficient to perform required analyses 
of the impacts of the designation is lacking or if the biological needs 
of the species are not sufficiently well known to permit identification 
of an area as critical habitat. Existing data are lacking in several 
areas necessary to support the designation of critical habitat, 
including identification and description of the physical and biological 
features essential to the conservation of Arctic ringed seals, and 
economic data which would allow for consideration of the costs of 
designation. We have therefore determined that designating critical 
habitat for the Arctic ringed seal is prudent but not determinable at 
this time. We will designate critical habitat for Arctic ringed seals 
in a subsequent rulemaking as provided under the ESA, and we are 
soliciting comments related to the designation (see DATES, ADDRESSES, 
and Information Solicited).
    Comment 61: Comments were received that it is unclear how future 
recovery planning, including establishing accurate recovery and 
delisting criteria, can occur given the apparent lack of abundance 
data. Other comments were received expressing support for recovery 
planning for ringed seals.
    Response: Section 4(f) of the ESA requires that NMFS develop 
recovery plans for ESA listed species, unless such a plan will not 
promote the conservation of the species. Section 4(f)(1)(A) of the ESA 
also states that in developing and implementing recovery plans, the 
Secretary shall, to the maximum extent practicable, ``give priority to 
those endangered species or threatened species, without regard to 
taxonomic classification, that are most likely to benefit from such 
plans.'' The ranges of Okhotsk, Baltic, and Ladoga

[[Page 76736]]

ringed seals occur entirely under the jurisdiction of other countries. 
These subspecies would therefore qualify for exemption from the ESA 
section 4(f) recovery planning process because the U.S. has little 
authority to implement actions necessary to recover foreign species. A 
recovery plan will be developed for Arctic ringed seals, provided that 
the limitations in section 4(a)(1)(A) of the ESA do not apply. Future 
recovery planning efforts for the Arctic ringed seal will incorporate 
the best scientific and commercial data available regarding abundance 
at that time, and would identify data gaps that warrant further 
research.
    Comment 62: A number of comments stressed that the determination 
should be based on sound scientific data and analysis. Some comments 
suggested inappropriate factors such as political pressure from the 
climate change debate may have influenced our decision making.
    Response: We were petitioned to evaluate the status of the ringed 
seal under the ESA. Section 4(b)(1)(A) of the ESA requires us to make 
listing determinations solely on the basis of the best scientific and 
commercial data available. Consistent with this requirement, in 
reaching our final listing determination, we considered the status 
review report prepared by the BRT, information received through public 
and peer review comments, and efforts being made to protect the 
species. This information is summarized in this final rule.
    Comment 63: A commenter expressed the opinion that to provide a 
meaningful process in which interested parties could review and comment 
on the special peer review comments, NMFS should have made the original 
comment letters available (rather than NMFS's ``summary interpretation 
of those comments'') and opened more than a 30-day comment period.
    Response: On April 6, 2012, we announced in the Federal Register 
the availability of a peer review report that consolidated the comments 
received from special peer review of the ringed seal status review 
report (77 FR 20773). We issued a news release to ensure that the 
public was made aware of this comment period. The comment period was 
limited to 30 days in consideration of the statutory deadline requiring 
a prompt final listing determination. We did not receive any specific 
requests to extend the comment period. The peer review report simply 
consolidated the comments received from the special peer reviewers to 
facilitate public review--the report did not provide our interpretation 
of those comments.

Comments on the Consequences of the Proposed Listing Rule

    Comment 64: Several commenters, including the State of Alaska and 
the ISC, expressed concern that the ultimate effect of the listings 
will be additional regulatory burden and increased economic and other 
human impacts without significant conservation benefit. Some of these 
commenters noted that the proposed listing would affect an area of 
national significance because of its importance for domestic oil and 
gas development. The State of Alaska specifically expressed concern 
that the proposed action will cause substantial injury to Alaska's 
economic interests, including those of northern coastal municipal 
governments. The State expressed the view, for example, that the 
listing will deter or delay activities such as oil and gas exploration 
and development, and shipping operations, which could reduce State 
royalties and revenue. One commenter also expressed concern that the 
listings could also potentially cause resources and efforts to be 
distracted away from the conservation of populations at greater risk.
    Response: Section 4(b)(1)(A) of the ESA states that the Secretary 
shall make listing determinations based solely on the best scientific 
and commercial data available, after conducting a status review of the 
species and taking into account efforts to protect the species. The 
regulations implementing the ESA at 50 CFR 424.11(b), consistent with 
case law interpreting the ESA and its legislative history, state that 
the listing determination will be made without reference to possible 
economic or other impacts of such determination. Therefore, we cannot 
consider such potential consequences in our final determination. 
However, we will consider economic impacts when designating critical 
habitat. We also note that such activities have been occurring despite 
the presence of several ESA-listed whale species in the areas.
    Comment 65: A few commenters, including Greenland's DFHA, expressed 
concern that if the Arctic ringed seal is listed as threatened a 
negative market perception toward use of seal products could, in turn, 
impact trade and harm Inuit communities. These commenters suggested 
that the proposed listing could also result in ringed seals being 
listed under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered 
Species (CITES), which would directly affect the trade of seal 
products, a vital part of the Inuit subsistence lifestyle and economic 
independence.
    Response: As noted above, section 4(b)(1)(A) of the ESA states that 
the Secretary shall make listing determinations based solely on the 
best scientific and commercial data available and the regulations 
implementing the ESA state that the listing determination will be made 
without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such 
determinations. Therefore, we cannot consider such potential 
consequences in our final determination. Regarding listing under CITES, 
we note that the structure of CITES is similar to the ESA, in that 
species are listed in CITES Appendices according to their conservation 
status. However, listed CITES species must also meet the test that 
trade is at least in part contributing to their decline. We did not 
find this to be the case for ringed seals.

Additional Comments

    Comment 66: The Marine Mammal Commission recommended that NMFS 
develop a research plan to address the major uncertainties and 
information gaps identified in the status review report, and strengthen 
collaborative efforts among range nations to facilitate research and 
management to assess the status and trends of ringed seal populations 
throughout the species' range, and identify protective measures where 
necessary. Canada's DFO noted that they remain open to exploring 
potential areas for cooperation for improving mutual understanding of 
Arctic seal populations. The Commission and another commenter expressed 
the view that NMFS also needs to prioritize funding to collect data on 
ringed seal population size and trends and many other aspects of the 
seal's biology, such as population structure of the Arctic subspecies, 
which are currently poorly understood.
    Response: We agree that additional research is needed to help 
resolve areas of uncertainty and to add to the ecological knowledge of 
this species. We look forward to working with our partners and 
stakeholders in the conservation and recovery of ringed seals, 
including obtaining needed research to fill in knowledge gaps.
    Comment 67: The State of Alaska and another commenter pointed out 
that the proposed rule referred to the ``long generation time'' of 
ringed seals without stating what it is. These commenters suggested 
this is an important parameter for population projections and 
population genetics assessments.
    Response: Based solely on the type of life history that ringed (and 
other) seals have evolved, with high adult survival rates and low birth 
rates, the species is expected to have a relatively long

[[Page 76737]]

generation time. The age at first reproduction and the birth rate would 
be expected to vary somewhat between regions and years because these 
typically depend upon foraging conditions. Palo et al. (2001) estimated 
the generation time of ringed seals to be about 11 years, based on 
vital statistics reported by Smith (1973) from seals sampled in the 
Canadian Arctic during 1966-1970.
    Comment 68: The State of Alaska and another commenter noted that 
there is a high degree of uncertainty associated with the ringed seal 
subspecies identified that should be more explicitly acknowledged, and 
they provided a number of references to support this comment.
    Response: Although the concept of a subspecies as an identifiable 
taxon has been questioned by some evolutionary biologists, and has been 
applied inconsistently by taxonomists with respect to the nature and 
amount of differentiation required for subspecies designation, the 
concept remains in wide use and there is clearly no consensus to 
abandon it. In the case of ringed seals, the five subspecies 
designations have been in wide use for many years (for details see 
Kelly et al., 2010a) and constitute the best scientific and commercial 
data available. There is clearly no means of dispersal between the 
landlocked subspecies in Lake Saimaa and Lake Ladoga, or between those 
subspecies and the remaining three subspecies. The BRT presented and 
considered reasonable evidence in the status review report that, 
although there could be some exchange of individuals between Arctic 
ringed seals and the subspecies in the Baltic Sea or Sea of Okhotsk, 
there is no documented evidence of exchange rates that would be 
sufficient to fuel a recovery of the latter populations if they were to 
become severely depleted. Thus, all five of the widely-recognized 
subspecies are appropriate for consideration of whether a listing is 
warranted.
    Comment 69: A commenter noted that the Society for Marine Mammalogy 
Committee on Taxonomy currently assigns the ringed seal species and the 
five subspecies to the genus Pusa rather than Phoca.
    Response: The status review report presented and considered a 
current lack of consensus on placement of ringed seals in the genus 
Pusa or Phoca (perhaps in a subgenus Pusa). The proposal to list ringed 
seals is not dependent on the nomenclature used.

Classification

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

    The 1982 amendments to the ESA, in section 4(b)(1)(A), restrict the 
information that may be considered when assessing species for listing. 
Based on this limitation of criteria for a listing decision and the 
opinion in Pacific Legal Foundation v. Andrus, 657 F. 2d 829 (6th Cir. 
1981), we have concluded that NEPA does not apply to ESA listing 
actions. (See NOAA Administrative Order 216-6.)

Executive Order (E.O.) 12866, Regulatory Flexibility Act, and Paperwork 
Reduction Act

    Under the plain language of the ESA and as noted in the Conference 
Report on the 1982 amendments to the ESA, economic impacts cannot be 
considered when assessing the status of a species. Therefore, the 
economic analyses required by the Regulatory Flexibility Act are not 
applicable to the listing process. In addition, this rule is exempt 
from review under E.O. 12866. This rule does not contain a collection 
of information requirement for the purposes of the Paperwork Reduction 
Act.

E.O. 13132, Federalism

    E.O. 13132 requires agencies to take into account any federalism 
impacts of regulations under development. It includes specific 
directives for consultation in situations where a regulation will 
preempt state law or impose substantial direct compliance costs on 
state and local governments (unless required by statute). Neither of 
those circumstances is applicable to this rule.

E.O. 13175, Consultation and Coordination With Indian Tribal 
Governments

    The longstanding and distinctive relationship between the Federal 
and tribal governments is defined by treaties, statutes, executive 
orders, judicial decisions, and co-management agreements, which 
differentiate tribal governments from the other entities that deal 
with, or are affected by, the Federal Government. This relationship has 
given rise to a special Federal trust responsibility involving the 
legal responsibilities and obligations of the United States toward 
Indian Tribes and the application of fiduciary standards of due care 
with respect to Indian lands, tribal trust resources, and the exercise 
of tribal rights. E.O. 13175--Consultation and Coordination with Indian 
Tribal Governments--outlines the responsibilities of the Federal 
Government in matters affecting tribal interests. Section 161 of Public 
Law 108-199 (188 Stat. 452), as amended by section 518 of Public Law 
108-447 (118 Stat. 3267), directs all Federal agencies to consult with 
Alaska Native corporations on the same basis as Indian tribes under 
E.O. 13175.
    NMFS has coordinated with Alaska Native communities regarding 
management issues related to ice seals through co-management 
organizations, particularly the ISC. NMFS discussed the listing 
petition with the ISC and provided updates regarding the timeline for 
the ringed seal status review. Following publication of the proposed 
listing determination, we notified the ISC of the proposal and 
requested comments on the proposed rule.
    We fully considered all of the comments received from Alaska Native 
organizations and tribes on the proposed rule and have addressed those 
comments in this final rule. In response to comments received during 
the public comment period that indicated some tribes may wish to 
consult on the proposed rule, we contacted potentially affected tribes 
by mail and offered them the opportunity to consult on the proposed 
action and discuss any concerns they may have. No requests for 
consultation were received in response to this mailing.

References Cited

    A complete list of all references cited in this rulemaking can be 
found on our Web site at http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/ and is 
available upon request from the NMFS office in Juneau, Alaska (see 
ADDRESSES).

List of Subjects

50 CFR Part 223

    Endangered and threatened species, Exports, Imports, 
Transportation.

50 CFR Part 224

    Endangered and threatened species, Exports, Reporting and 
recordkeeping requirements.

    Dated: December 20, 2012.
Alan D. Risenhoover,
Director, Office of Sustainable Fisheries, performing the functions and 
duties of the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs 
National Marine Fisheries Service.
    For the reasons set out in the preamble, 50 CFR parts 223 and 224 
are amended as follows:

[[Page 76738]]

PART 223--THREATENED MARINE AND ANADROMOUS SPECIES

0
1. The authority citation for part 223 continues to read as follows:

    Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1531-1543; subpart B, Sec.  223.201-202 
also issued under 16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.; 16 U.S.C. 5503(d) for 
Sec.  223.206(d)(9).


0
2. In Sec.  223.102, in the table, add paragraphs (a)(4), (a)(5), and 
(a)(6) to read as follows:


Sec.  223.102  Enumeration of threatened marine and anadromous species.

* * * * *

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                       Species \1\                                                                      Citation(s) for
----------------------------------------------------------               Where listed                       listing           Citation(s) for critical
            Common name                Scientific name                                                 determination(s)        habitat designation(s)
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 
                                                                      * * * * * * *
(4) Ringed seal, Arctic subspecies  Phoca (=Pusa) hispida  The Arctic subspecies of the ringed      [INSERT FR CITATION &   NA
                                     hispida.               seal includes all ringed seals from      12/28/12].
                                                            breeding populations in the Arctic
                                                            Ocean and adjacent seas except west of
                                                            157[deg] E. Long., or west of the
                                                            Kamchatka Peninsula, where breeding
                                                            populations of ringed seals of the
                                                            Okhotsk subspecies are listed as
                                                            threatened under Sec.   223.102(a)(5);
                                                            or in the Baltic Sea where breeding
                                                            populations of ringed seals are listed
                                                            as threatened under Sec.
                                                            223.102(a)(6).
(5) Ringed seal, Okhotsk            Phoca (=Pusa) hispida  The Okhotsk subspecies of the ringed     [INSERT FR CITATION &   NA
 subspecies.                         ochotensis.            seal includes all ringed seals from      12/28/12].
                                                            breeding populations west of 157[deg]
                                                            E. Long., or west of the Kamchatka
                                                            Peninsula, in the Pacific Ocean.
(6) Ringed seal, Baltic subspecies  Phoca (=Pusa) hispida  The Baltic subspecies of the ringed      [INSERT FR CITATION &   NA
                                     botnica.               seal includes all ringed seals from      12/28/12].
                                                            breeding populations within the Baltic
                                                            Sea.
 
                                                                      * * * * * * *
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
\1\ Species includes taxonomic species, subspecies, distinct population segments (DPSs) (for a policy statement; see 61 FR4722, February 7, 1996), and
  evolutionarily significant units (ESUs) (for a policy statement; see 56 FR 58612, November 20, 1991).

* * * * *

PART 224--ENDANGERED MARINE AND ANADROMOUS SPECIES

0
3. The authority citation for part 224 continues to read as follows:

    Authority: 16 U.S.C. 1531-1543 and 16 U.S.C. 1361 et seq.


Sec.  224.101  [Amended]

0
4. In Sec.  224.101, amend paragraph (b) by adding the phrase ``Ladoga 
ringed seal (Phoca (=Pusa) hispida ladogensis);'' immediately after the 
phrase '' Killer whale (Orcinus orca), Southern Resident distinct 
population segment, which consists of whales from J, K and L pods, 
wherever they are found in the wild, and not including Southern 
Resident killer whales placed in captivity prior to listing or their 
captive born progeny;''.

[FR Doc. 2012-31066 Filed 12-21-12; 4:15 pm]
BILLING CODE 3510-22-P