The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has added the Pacific walrus to the candidate list for the Endangered Species Act’s protection, although the animals will be precluded from an immediate formal listing.
After a 12-month finding, FWS decided that sufficient scientific and commercial data exists to warrant the walruses ESA protection, but higher priority species, such as polar bears, need to be addressed first. This means the walruses will be considered as candidates for protection and their status will reviewed annually, according to FWS spokesperson Bruce Woods.
Woods said the primary threat is the loss of sea ice, which he described as used by walruses for everything, including feeding, breeding, protection and transport to other feeding grounds over waters along continental shelves. He said the secondary threat is that the continued trend of legal harvests continuing at the same rate of this decline could make the walrus population unsustainable at some point in the future.
“All the projections we’ve seen indicate the population is going to drop in line with sea ice decline,” he said, and added that walruses that get stuck in large numbers on land may become susceptible to predators or may stampede.
“The threats to the walrus are very real, as evidenced by this ‘warranted’ finding,” FWS Alaska Region Director Geoff Haskett said in press release. “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 Alaska Native groups, the State of Alaska and other partners to help the walrus now, we may be able to lessen the long-term impacts of climate change on these animals and keep them from becoming endangered.”
Pacific walruses are considered warranted but precluded from protection because they are adaptable enough to changing environments, able to use land-based haulouts for rest and feeding when there is not enough sea ice available.
In comparison, polar bears, which also depend on sea ice, were ESA listed because they cannot adapt to life on land as easily and can be cut off from their food sources.
Pacific walruses also show a higher population with at least 129,000 animals. FWS lists that there are no more than 25,000 polar bears. Woods said the walrus count came from an American and Russian joint survey in 2006, and that the population is probably greater because significant portions of the habitats could not be covered.
While the walruses are not under ESA jurisdiction, they are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, which includes prohibitions on the harvest, import, export and interstate commerce of the Pacific walrus or its products.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is the senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is against listing the animals, stating in a press release, “I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the FWS would recommend that the Pacific walrus warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act. FWS went down this road with the polar bear listing, where the agency used highly variable modeling to project 50 years into the future possible impacts of projected loss of sea ice, it was inevitable that more listings of other Arctic species would follow. I believe that the future listing of the walrus will be premature and highly speculative until we have verifiable science which shows that the projected loss of habitat does endanger a currently healthy species. Even then, a listing under the ESA will do nothing to change the considerable uncertainty of the effects of climate change on the walrus population or the effectiveness of the ESA in mitigating the loss of habitat.”
“The only thing we know for sure today is the drastic impact that this action will have on Alaska,” Murkowski said. “We will have a critical habitat proposal that will be even larger than the one for the polar bear; it will increase the regulatory burden and costs of all economic activity in the area and it will lead to even more burdensome environmental litigation. And even though the agency finds that subsistence hunting is not a factor in the species being warranted for listing, there will be increased pressure to reduce harvest levels and this will negatively impact the nutrition and the very existence of our Native peoples. The Fish and Wildlife Service should not be surprised when Congress fights back on these unwarranted and unwelcome overreaches.”
• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.