Pacific Walrus Only a Candidate for Endangered Species Protection

WASHINGTON, DC, February 9, 2011 (ENS) – The Pacific walrus warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, but an official rulemaking to propose that protection is currently precluded by the need to address other higher priority species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined Tuesday.

As a result, the Pacific walrus, Odobenus rosmarus divergens, will be added to the agency’s list of candidates for Endangered Species Act protection and its future status will be reviewed annually. Any future proposal to add the Pacific walrus to the federal list of threatened and endangered species will be subject to public review and comment.

The Service’s determination, known as a 12-month finding, found that the walrus is primarily threatened by the loss of sea ice in its arctic habitat due to climate change.

“The threats to the walrus are very real, as evidenced by this ‘warranted’ finding,” said Geoff Haskett, the Service’s director of the Alaska Region. “But its greater population numbers and ability to adapt to land-based haulouts make its immediate situation less dire than those facing other species such as the polar bear.”

“If we work with native Alaskan groups, the State of Alaska and other partners to help the walrus now,” said Haskett, “we may be able to lessen the long-term impacts of climate change on these animals and keep them from becoming endangered.”

While candidate species do not receive protection under the Endangered Species Act, Pacific walrus in the United States are currently protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Haskett said these protections are similar to those under the Endangered Species Act and include prohibitions on the harvest, import, export, and interstate commerce of the Pacific walrus or walrus products.

A Pacific walrus bull is hauled out on the ice in coastal Alaska waters. (Photo by Joel Garlich-Miller courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

But the Center for Biological Diversity is not persuaded that these protections are sufficient to save the walrus from extinction. The nonprofit organization petitioned the Service in February 2008 to list the Pacific walrus as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act and to designate critical habitat for the animals.

“The Obama administration has acknowledged that the walrus is facing extinction due to climate change, yet is withholding the very protections that can help save it,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s like having a doctor declare that you are in critical condition, but then just leaving you unattended in the hospital’s waiting room.”

Wolf points out that the Service’s decision goes against the recommendation of the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent federal scientific advisory body, which endorsed listing the Pacific walrus as a threatened species.

The Pacific walrus is found throughout the continental shelf waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas and occasionally in the East Siberian Sea and the Beaufort Sea.

The precise number of the Pacific walrus is unknown. The last joint U.S./Russian survey, conducted in 2006 using thermal imaging systems and satellite transmitters, estimated walrus numbers at 129,000. This is considered a minimum estimate, since weather conditions forced an early end to the survey and not much of the southwest Bering Sea was completed.

Pacific walrus use floating sea ice as a substrate for birthing and nursing calves, resting, isolation from predators and for passive transport to new feeding areas.

The Service has concluded that loss of sea ice – with the resulting changes to walrus distribution and life history patterns this loss entails – will lead to a population decline and is a threat to Pacific walrus in the foreseeable future.

Bob Irvin, senior vice president of conservation programs for Defenders of Wildlife, said the Pacific walrus faces a difficult future.

“By melting Arctic sea ice on which Pacific walrus and other wildlife depend, climate change is stacking the deck against their ability to survive,” Irvin said. “As Pacific walrus habitat shrinks, it becomes harder to find food and the animals are forced to crowd together in smaller areas, increasing the risk of deadly stampedes.”

“With all of these threats, the life of a Pacific walrus is pretty tough,” he said Tuesday. “Today’s decision just made it tougher, failing to provide the help Pacific walrus will need to survive the impacts of global climate change.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2011. All rights reserved.