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Lake Iliamna seal

Anchorage Daily News, December 10, 2012

Iliamna seals matter, as does the Bristol Bay watershed
By Kiersten Lippmann

From the opening line of columnist Paul Jenkins' diatribe against the Center for Biological Diversity's recent petition seeking Endangered Species Act protection for Alaska's rare Iliamna Lake seals, ("Iliamna seals just the latest silly argument against Pebble," Nov. 24,) Jenkins demonstrates how little he understands the issues at stake. In so doing, he discounts both the people and wildlife of the Bristol Bay region that have relied on annual salmon runs for generations.

Throughout Jenkins' ramblings on Iliamna seals and the planned Pebble mine (that would be North American's largest open-pit mining operation) he repeatedly states that there needs to be an honest debate on the facts, and then presents faulty and misleading information on both Pebble and the Iliamna seals.

Jenkins suggests that because no application has been filed for the mine, it "does not exist" and it's pointless to debate its merits. But as Alaskans know - especially the tens of thousands who depend on the world's largest annual salmon runs -- the plans for the mine are very real, as are the irreversible environmental impacts that accompany an open pit mine larger than Manhattan and sevens times deeper than the height of the Washington Monument. Every other copper sulfide mine of similar size in the United States has experienced unforeseen accidents or failures resulting in serious and long-lasting environmental damage. Acid mine drainage from sulfide mines in the Lower 48 has turned streams as acidic as lemon juice, devastating entire ecosystems.

After 50-some years, Pebble developers will walk with the money and the minerals and the 1,000 jobs they're touting, leaving Alaskans to deal with billions of tons of toxic waste and a potentially devastated salmon fishery -- the last great sockeye salmon fishery in the world.

Jenkins goes on to lambast the EPA for having the gall to do its job, which includes using the Clean Water Act to prevent pollution of the nation's waterways. He asserts the agency offered a "flawed, rushed survey" of potential impacts from large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed. In fact, a consistent theme in the recent peer review of the EPA's assessment was that it underestimated potential impacts of the mine.

Jenkins suggests the Iliamna seals are "lollygagging" in the lake, and that "nobody cares a whit." What he fails to realize is that Alaskans do care. Whether we are outdoorsman who have hiked and hunted this rugged beautiful territory, or conservation-minded citizens working to preserve the diversity of life, or enjoy fresh, untainted wild-caught Bristol Bay salmon- we care.

Remarkably, in Jenkins' attempts to explain why the Iliamna Lake seals aren't a distinct population worthy of any special federal protection, he does a great job of making an argument for why the seals are worthy of protection. To quote him: "It is rare for harbor seals to establish year-round, freshwater populations, and if Iliamna seals have, they would constitute one of five such groups in the entire northern hemisphere."

Exactly the point. And there's lots of evidence - including body size, fur patterns, diet, reproductive timing and use of ice-cave habitats - that makes a strong case for protection. Jenkins states that there is no proof that "any or all" of the seals remain in Iliamna Lake through the winter. This is factually incorrect, as aerial surveys and subsistence hunters both have provided ample proof that Iliamna seals do over-winter in the lake.

Before we entrust our salmon fisheries and the pristine, irreplaceable ecosystem that supports them, to the notoriously polluting mining industry, it is only reasonable to ensure we have the most informed debate possible.

Regardless of whether the Pebble mine moves forward, we know this: thanks to the Endangered Species Act, which has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the plants and animals under its care, the evaluation of the Iliamna Lake seals' population will proceed. For all of us Alaskans that value this state's fish and wildlife, this is welcome news.

Kiersten Lippmann is an Anchorage-based biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity.

© Anchorage Daily News.

This article originally appeared here.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton