Valley Farmers Versus Killer Whales

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Southern resident killer whales are a population of orcas that spend time each year in the San Juan Islands and Puget Sound.

The federal government is reviewing whether a population of killer whales should be taken off the endangered list. But there's a twist: the review was sparked by a legal challenge from Central Valley farmers.

You might not expect farms in California to be concerned with killer whales off the coast of Washington.

"We're awfully surprised by it, too," says Damian Schiff. "But it's a connection the federal government itself has already made." 

Schiff is an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, a group that advocates for less government regulation. He filed the petition to delist southern resident killer whales -- a population that lives in the Puget Sound.

"The Feds reason that water projects in the Delta negatively affect salmon and other fish species that are prey for this killer whale population," Schiff explains.

The southern resident killer whales are the only orcas protected by the Endangered Species Act. Schiff says, recent research indicates that they're not genetically distinct from the larger group of Pacific Ocean killer whales, so they shouldn't be treated differently.

Brian Gorman, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says the agency's decision to review the killer whale's status doesn't mean they'll delist them.

"It's part of a process," he says. "We're going to spend the next nine months looking at it very carefully, and then we'll make a call about whether we should continue with an extra step."

If the killer whales were removed from the endangered species list, they would still be protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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