Sea Ice Loss Dooms Walrus If not Protected, Groups Claim

Pacific walrus. (Courthouse News Service via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – As sea ice melts at an alarming rate, 21 environmental groups urged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to complete the endangered species listing for the Pacific walrus. However, listing the walrus under the Endangered Species Act could endanger the current administration’s plans for offshore drilling in the Arctic.

“Strong federal protections are critical for the survival of the Pacific walrus, an iconic species whose homes are literally melting beneath them,” Center for Biological Diversity scientist Shaye Wolf, said. “With sea ice hitting record lows this year, it’s becoming harder for walruses to survive in their Arctic habitat. If the Trump administration doesn’t act, these animals face a truly dismal future.”

The CBD and allied groups sent a letter to the USFWS regarding the upcoming court-determined Sept. 30 deadline for the agency to either begin the endangered species listing process for the Pacific walrus or remove it from the candidate list.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service knows the Pacific walrus is in trouble. The only thing preventing its protection is politics. We hope officials do the right thing and give this majestic animal the protections it needs to survive,” Wolf said. “Listing the walrus as an endangered species would force the Trump administration to admit that climate change is real and it’s putting life on Earth in danger.”

The agency determined that the Pacific walrus needed protection under the Endangered Species Act in February 2011, but that its listing was “precluded by higher listing priorities.” A settlement agreement later that year between the CBD and the agency mandated that the agency make listing determinations for hundreds of backlogged species by 2018. A few species, including the walrus, have earlier deadlines.

“On behalf of our millions of supporters, we urge you to list the Pacific walrus, Odobenus rosmarus divergens, as a threatened or endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Listing the Pacific walrus under the ESA would be the first step in providing this majestic species the protections it needs to survive. We are profoundly concerned that the walrus will suffer massive population declines due to the loss of sea ice in the foreseeable future. Action is needed now, more than ever before, to protect this iconic species,” the groups’ letter states.

The walrus population was decimated from 200,000 to approximately 45,000 in the 1950s and 1960s due to commercial harvest, according to the USFWS. Commercial and recreational harvest is no longer permitted, but Alaska Natives have subsistence harvest rights.

The walrus is considered to be an “ice-dependant” species due to the animals’ use of “floating sea ice for birthing and nursing calves, resting, isolation from predators, and for passive transport to new feeding areas,” according to the agency. However, the loss of sea ice to warming waters is now the primary threat to the mammal. The summer sea ice has already retreated beyond the shallow continental shelf waters where the bottom-feeding walruses feast on clams, sea cucumbers and segmented worms, the agency noted.

As the ice shrinks, walruses haul out onto land “resulting in increased competition for prey and a high potential for mass mortalities as a result of trampling. Scientists agree that the Pacific walrus will face significant population decline, even extinction, as global warming rapidly melts sea ice in the Arctic and ocean acidification alters prey availability,” the groups’ letter claims.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is an agency tasked with implementing the Endangered Species Act. It perennially suffers from a lack of funding and political support to manage listings in a timely manner, which is why the CBD and others not only submit petitions on behalf of imperiled species, but also file lawsuits when the listings are delayed. Under the current administration, which has pulled out of the Paris climate accord, promoted Arctic drilling, and through a number of executive orders, proposed bills, and many statements signaled a disdain for climate change science and the reality of global warming, the likelihood of the USFWS following through on the ESA walrus listing is in question, despite evidence of their peril.

“Arctic sea ice extent, on which the Pacific walrus so heavily relies, hit record lows during fall 2016 and winter 2017, and sea ice in the Chukchi Sea off Point Lay retreated at a record rate this May,” the CBD noted. “Local villagers in Point Lay are helping protect the walruses and cautioning the general public against doing anything to scare or disrupt them. Mass walrus haul-outs were first observed in 2007, when Arctic sea-ice extent dropped 1 million square miles below average, losing an area the size of Alaska and Texas combined.”

The USFWS did not immediately respond to a request for comments.

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