ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) – The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration Thursday over its denial of Endangered Species Act protection to the Pacific walrus.
The lawsuit, filed in Anchorage federal court, challenges the October 2017 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finding the Pacific walrus does not warrant listing as a threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
“The service’s listing decision deprives the walrus of the ESA protections which it is both entitled to and desperately needs,” the complaint states.
In 2011, following the center’s petition three years earlier to list the walrus as threatened or endangered, Fish and Wildlife decided the animal needed protection. Officials concluded climate change would destroy the walrus’s sea-ice habitat and cause a substantial population decline.
But a few months after President Donald Trump took office, the agency reversed course and found the species no longer merits protection. Fish and Wildlife Service said that because the species is not likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future, it would delay listing in favor of more highly threatened species.
“Our decision not to list the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act at this time is based on a rigorous evaluation of the best available science, which indicates the population appears stable, and the species has demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing conditions,” Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan said in a statement this past October.
Environmentalists say the case for listing the species has only grown stronger since 2011, as Arctic sea-ice hit numerous record lows, summer sea ice continues to disappear from the walrus’s foraging grounds in the Chukchi Sea, and new models representing the international scientific consensus on climate change point to a dramatic loss of the walrus’s sea-ice habitat through at least the end of the century.
“The Trump administration’s outrageous reversal is a deathblow for the Pacific walrus,” Emily Jeffers, an attorney with the Center, said in a statement. “Arctic ice is disappearing at a record rate, and walruses are suffering catastrophic habitat loss. Rather than ignoring the science, the administration needs to give these magnificent creatures the protection they desperately need to survive – and legally deserve.”
Without strong action to reduce carbon pollution, scientists project summer sea ice will disappear in the next decade or two.
“The science clearly shows that climate change is destroying the sea ice walruses need to survive,” said Jeffers. “We’re confident the court will see this reckless finding as a politically driven decision that completely ignores the agency’s legal obligations to protect imperiled wildlife.”
The center points out listing the Pacific walrus will not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska natives. Listing the walrus would provide the species with several important protections, including from oil and gas development and the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change. Listing the species also requires the federal government to designate critical habitat.
The lawsuit comes a day before the close of the comment period on the Trump administration’s proposal to allow offshore oil and gas drilling across the United States, including the Chukchi and Bering seas where walrus live.
The Pacific walrus, native to the northern coasts of Alaska, uses sea ice in the summer to forage for food and to rest. Climate change has led to the decline of the Arctic sea ice, forcing walruses to go ashore where food is more limited and predators are more likely to attack.
Female walruses and their young also rode the sea ice during the summer, as it gave them protection from aquatic predators. Instead, walruses have been forced onto Alaskan beaches by the thousands.