SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The U.S. government can settle claims that it failed to set a critical habitat for the loggerhead sea turtle, which it has listed as a threatened species for 34 years.
Under the settlement, the government must establish terrestrial and marine critical habitat for the Northwest Atlantic and North Pacific loggerhead sea turtle populations by July 1, 2014.
The Endangered Species Act tasks the government with identifying areas of critical habitat for endangered and threatened species if such an area is deemed crucial to the future protection of the species.
Loggerhead sea turtles are one of the most endangered species of sea turtle, and their populations shrink each year, according to the website for the National Marine Fisheries Service.
They typically grow to about 3 feet long and weigh between 250 and 300 lbs. Loggerhead sea turtles are found throughout the tropical regions of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and inhabit three main ecosystems: oceanic beaches, where they mate and nest; the open ocean; and near-shore coastal areas.
The biggest threats to the dwindling population of these turtles come in incidental capture from fishing gear and habitat destruction, the Fisheries Service said.
Loggerhead sea turtles joined the list of threatened species on July 28, 1978. As loggerhead populations continued to drop off, the environmental groups petitioned the agencies in 2007 to classify the North Pacific and Western Atlantic populations as endangered and establish critical habitat for them.
Though the agencies acknowledged the scientific merit of the groups' petitions and issued a final rule in September 2011 listing nine loggerhead populations as endangered, they claimed they could not yet determined critical habitat and would establish it in a later rulemaking.
When the agencies missed the deadline, it faced a January 2013 lawsuit
from the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and the Turtle Island Restoration Network.
The parties reached a settlement, which U.S. District Judge Nathanael Cousins signed Friday.
Any party can modify the July 1, 2014, to establish critical habitat for loggerhead sea turtles with a showing of good cause, according to the deal.
The settlement also allows the environmentalists to file a motion to enforce the stipulation if the agencies miss the deadline.
"The parties agree that settlement of this action in this manner is in the public interest and is an appropriate way to resolve this dispute," Cousins wrote.
He dismissed the case with prejudice but allowed the court to retain jurisdiction over the groups' claims to attorneys' fees, which the parties did not resolve.
The environmental groups were represented by Catherine Cain Ware Kilduff with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Defendants to the suit were Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of the Department of Commerce; the National Marine Fisheries Service; Sally Jewell, secretary of the Department of the Interior; and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
They were represented by Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno and co-counsel J. Brett Grosko with the Department of Justice.