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Thursday, July 14, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Animal rights group sues over Steller sea lion research

Associated Press Writer

ANCHORAGE — An animal rights group filed a lawsuit yesterday accusing the federal government of using illegal research techniques on threatened and endangered Steller sea lions.

The Humane Society of the United States says the National Marine Fisheries Service has approved permits for research activities that include hot branding and tissue sampling of thousands of Steller sea lions each year.

Humane Society officials said the research practices violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act.

"The obligation of scientists and the government to do no harm while conducting research is greatest when dealing with endangered species," said John Grandy, senior vice president for wildlife and habitat protection for the Washington, D.C.-based society.

Fisheries service scientists contend their research techniques are not harming the overall Steller sea lion population and are necessary to understanding the animals' unexplained decline.

The research involves tracking Steller sea lions so fisheries managers can set catch limits that don't adversely affect the animals, said Doug DeMaster, director of the federal Alaska Fisheries Science Center, based in Seattle.

"We must capture or hot brand the animals and see where they are feeding to better manage the fisheries and try to protect the animals from human activities," DeMaster said.

DeMaster said the research techniques are needed to promote the species' overall recovery.

The number of Steller sea lions in the western stock dropped from about 200,000 originally to 35,000 animals in 2002, federal fisheries scientists estimate. Scientists do not know the original population level of the genetically distinct eastern group, but as of 2002 there were 31,000 animals, with numbers on the rise.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in 1990 listed both populations as threatened. The western population in Alaska was listed as endangered in 1997 after a dramatic decrease was documented.

The Steller sea lion habitat roughly follows the rim of the North Pacific Ocean from northern Japan to the south coast of Alaska. The animals also live on California's Channel Islands.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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