ANCHORAGE - Dozens of walrus carcasses have washed up on beaches this summer, many missing their heads and ivory tusks.
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While headless carcasses are not uncommon along beaches in western Alaska in summer, the number of carcasses washing up in Norton Sound has prompted an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Federal authorities don't know if a crime has occurred, said Steve Oberholtzer, a special agent in Anchorage. But he said investigators are looking into two possibilities: either someone who is not Alaska Native is poaching walruses or Alaska Natives are not salvaging enough of the animals.
Only Alaska Natives are allowed to subsistence-hunt for walrus. The tusks are often carved or used in Native arts and crafts. Non-Natives can also harvest walrus tusks if they find a carcass. However, non-Natives can't sell or profit from them.
Oberholtzer said Wednesday cases of a non-Native illegally killing a walrus is unusual.
However, he said the agency does have anywhere from one to eight or more cases a year of wasteful take by Alaska Natives. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act requires at a minimum the heart, liver, flippers, chest meat with blubber, and some red meat be used, he said. Violators face a maximum $100,000 fine and one year in prison, he said.
In late June and early July, 79 walrus carcasses were counted along a 40-mile stretch between Elim and Unalakleet - about twice as many as in any year in the past decade, Oberholtzer said.
"Every one of them had the head removed," he said.
The ones that investigators got a close look at had been shot, he said.
Pacific walruses are not considered threatened or endangered. The population was estimated at more than 200,000 in 1990, the most recent count. Fish and Wildlife hopes to have a more accurate count by next year.
"There is no evidence that subsistence hunting is causing a problem," said John Trent, lead biologist with the Fish and Wildlife walrus program.
In 2005, Alaska Native subsistence hunters harvested 1,590 walrus. Another 1,470 were killed by Russian subsistence hunters.
"We work very hard with the Alaska Native community to promote effective harvest and minimize losses and waste of any kind," Trent said. "I think most people do try very hard. ... They absolutely depend on these animals."