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8 sea lions found shot to death near Seattle

SEATTLE -- At least eight sea lions have been found shot to death in the Puget Sound region in recent weeks, wildlife officials say.

The bodies of seven sea lions were recently found on the Nisqually River, south of Tacoma, all apparently shot, NBC station KING 5 of Seattle reported. On Monday, a mature male California sea lion was found dead on West Seattle's Lincoln Park beach.

During a necropsy, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife removed a bullet from the left lung of that sea lion, according to the animal protection group Seal Sitters, which keeps watch over baby seals left on the beach while their mothers are foraging.

State and federal authorities are investigating, but they said they don't know who killed the sea lions. The penalty could range from fees to possible jail time.

California sea lions are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Stellar sea lions are a federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Almost two years ago, five sea lions were found shot to death on West Seattle beaches. In that instance, the Humane Society offered a $2,500 reward for information leading to an arrest.

Sea lions have proved to be pests in some parts of the Puget Sound. Extensive efforts have been used to prevent them from devouring salmon schooled at the ship locks that lead from Puget Sound into Seattle's Lake Union. Authorities have tried to scare those away with firecrackers, fired rubber bullets and bean bags at them, even captured and trucked them all the way to California. Sea lions that refused to take the hint have been killed by authorities.

A photograph taken recently and published in the Seattle Times showed dozens of sea lions on an old barge near the north end of the Nisqually Delta, where the seven sea lions were found shot. 

"This is the most sea lions I have ever seen at once in south sound," Pete Topping, a state Fish and Wildlife biologist, told the Times.

Msnbc.com's Gil Aegerter contributed to this report from NBC station KING 5 of Seattle.

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