Federal Government Petitioned to Protect Pacific Walrus

SAN FRANCISCO, California, February 7, 2008 (ENS) – The Pacific walrus is threatened by global warming and oil development throughout its range and needs the shelter of the federal Endangered Species Act, the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity warned today, filing a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the walrus for protection.

“The Arctic is in crisis from global warming. Arctic sea ice is disappearing at a stunning rate that vastly exceeds the predictions of the best climate models,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the petition.”

“The Pacific walrus is an early victim of our failure to address global warming,” said Wolf. “As the sea ice recedes, so does the future of the Pacific walrus.”

Walrus on ice (Photo courtesy NASA)

The Pacific walrus inhabits the Arctic seas between Alaska and Siberia in a life cycle intimately linked with the sea ice.

Female walruses and their calves follow the sea ice year-round and mothers rely on the safety of ice floes for nursing their calves and as essential resting platforms between foraging bouts, since they cannot continually swim.

All Pacific walrus are dependent on sea ice for their breeding activities in winter. And all walruses use the sea ice as a platform from which to forage for clams and mussels in the relatively shallow waters over the continental shelf.

But this sea ice is rapidly shrinking and forcing the Pacific walrus into a land-based existence for which it is not adapted. In 2007, the early disappearance of summer sea ice pushed females and calves onto land in abnormally dense herds. As a result, females and young were forced to abandon large regions of their at-sea feeding grounds, and calves suffered high mortality on land due to trampling by the dense herds.

Walrus calves, unable to swim as long as adults, have also been abandoned by their mothers at sea, which has been attributed to the disappearance of the sea ice on which they would normally rest.

The impacts of global warming on the Pacific walrus will worsen in this century. Scientists expect that the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer as early as 2012.

The Pacific walrus’s winter sea-ice habitat is projected to decline 40 percent by mid-century if current greenhouse gas emissions continue, and any remaining sea ice in winter will be much thinner and will not last as long.

Warming sea temperatures and sea-ice loss appear to be decreasing the abundance of the Pacific walrus’s bottom-dwelling prey. Habitat loss of this magnitude will undoubtedly commit Pacific walrus to population declines and an increased risk of extinction.

At the same time the sea-ice habitat of the walrus is melting away, its most important foraging grounds are being auctioned off to oil companies to extract more oil and gas. When burned to produce energy, the oil and gas emit greenhouse gases that further accelerate global warming and the melting of the Arctic.

The Chukchi Lease Sale 193, held on February 6, resulted in 2.7 million acres of important Pacific walrus being bid on by oil companies, opening the door for oil and gas development in a significant portion of the Pacific walrus’s summer range.

Five other lease sales in the Pacific walrus’s habitat in the Chukchi, Beaufort and Bering Seas are planned by 2012.

“With rapid action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, combined with a moratorium on new oil and gas development and shipping routes in the Arctic, we can still save the Pacific walrus, the polar bear, and the Arctic ecosystem,” said Wolf. “But the window of opportunity to act is closing rapidly.”

Jay Skiles, senior research scientist in biosphere science at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California said their data suggest the possibility that sea ice features may be critical factors for the walrus when choosing a habitat.

Using techniques developed during a walrus census last spring, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may be able to determine, over time, if climate change is affecting Pacific walrus populations,” said Skiles.

Oil and gas development, shipping, and greenhouse gas emissions affecting the Arctic would be subject to greater regulation under the Endangered Species Act if the walrus is listed.

Listing of the Pacific walrus would not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska Natives, which is exempted from the law.

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