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By David Adams
(Reuters) - The Obama administration has agreed by July 1 to map out areas to protect nesting beaches for endangered loggerhead sea turtles as part of a legal settlement with conservation groups.
The U.S. Department of Commerce agreed to the deadline for a preliminary proposal on the critical habitat of loggerheads in the U.S. Atlantic and Pacific oceans and in the Gulf of Mexico, under an agreement filed on Thursday in U.S. District Court in California.
Three environmental groups sued the government in January, accusing it violating the Endangered Species Act by failing to take steps to ensure survival of loggerhead turtles.
Under the act, a species may be listed as threatened or endangered depending on its risk for extinction.
In March the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified more than 739 miles of critical habitat for threatened loggerhead sea turtles on their nesting beaches in six states along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, including 90 beaches.
The government must reach a final determination on critical habitat protection for the loggerheads by July 1, 2014, the court agreement states.
The lawsuit brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana Inc and Turtle Island Restoration said the marine turtles' long-term survival was threatened by destruction or degradation of nesting and foraging habitats, oil spills and other pollution, climate change, rising seas and erosion.
Loggerheads, which can live decades and weigh hundreds of pounds, were first designated as threatened in 1978.
The groups first petitioned the government for action to protect loggerheads in 2007, said Jaclyn Lopez, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency was already working to identifying critical habitats, and that it had not done so in response to the lawsuit.
"We noted at the time critical habitat was undeterminable based on the information we had available at the time," said Charles Underwood, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service in north Florida.
Underwood said that the subsequent availability of new information enabled the service to "take a closer look and identify the terrestrial habitat criteria and locations."
A period for public comment and data from wildlife biologists ends on May 24 before the areas are formally designated as critical habitat, he added.
(Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in South Carolina; Editing by Alden Bentley)