The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:
An apparent slaughter of more than two dozen walruses on Alaska’s northwest coast last week was enough to shock the conscience of any Alaskan. The Last Frontier has long been a land of plenty, and for thousands of years, those who have lived here have borne the responsibility of being good stewards of the land and its animals. Incidents like the one near Cape Lisburne last week do much damage to that stewardship, as well as to the population of one of Alaska’s signature species that can ill afford such killings.
Out of all Alaska’s big, charismatic animals, the walrus is rivaled only by the polar bear in its vulnerability to a changing environment. The Alaska walrus population was estimated at 129,000 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2006, but because of the difficulty in counting a species that spends much time underwater and on the move, the actual number could be anywhere between 55,000 and 500,000.
Recent sea ice changes have been hard on walruses. Specifically, higher temperatures have led to thinner and less expansive sea ice that walruses traverse and forage on in winter, forcing them to shore. On shore, they’re considerably more vulnerable to predators such as polar bears and humans. “With less sea ice, walruses will likely spend more time on shore haulouts along the Russian and Alaskan coasts where foraging trips may be more limited to foraging grounds nearby,” a statement on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website states. “Calves and yearlings suffer increased mortality on terrestrial haulouts when disturbances cause the herd to panic and rush to the water running over and crushing the smaller animals.”
As last week’s incident at Cape Lisburne highlights, the walruses have reason to fear such disturbances. A resident in the area contacted federal officials after discovering 25 walruses — half of them babies — that appeared to have been shot and left to rot on the shoreline, with little or no meat salvaged and ivory taken from the walruses’ bodies. An investigation is ongoing, but circumstantial evidence points to the wholesale slaughter of a game animal solely for its ivory, an egregious case of wanton waste and a federal offense.
Without help from the community, there may be little hope of bringing those who killed the walruses at Cape Lisburne to justice. That’s shameful, particularly because it’s a crime that goes against all that Alaskans should stand for. Wild animals such as the walrus, when they are hunted at all, are to be hunted by Alaska Natives to feed their families, not for profit from ivory or even for sport. No matter whether there are 55,000 or 500,000 walruses, there aren’t enough to afford this type of wastefulness.
If there are people other than the perpetrators of the walrus killing at Cape Lisburne who have information about what happened there, they should come forward.
Staying silent only enables further waste and degradation of the subsistence ethic. Alaskans are supposed to be good stewards of the country and its animals, not indiscriminate killers who deplete our wildlife resources for thrills or profit.