Court settlement pushes U.S. agency to decide if Pacific walrus is threatened species

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faces a deadline this week to decide whether the iconic Pacific walrus will join the polar bear on the threatened species list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until Saturday to make a decision

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, has until September 30 to decide whether Pacific walrus should be listed to the threatened species list because of threats to its habitat, sea ice, due to climate change. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/AP)

An American federal agency faces a deadline this week to decide whether the iconic Pacific walrus will join the polar bear on the threatened species list.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under a court settlement has until Saturday to decide whether the Pacific walrus should be put on the list because of threats to its sea ice habitat due to climate change.

Walruses use sea ice as platforms for resting, feeding and nursing. In spring, ice in the Bering Sea melts and the edge gradually recedes north through the Bering Strait and into the Chukchi Sea.

Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, in February 2008 filed the petition that called for the listing. The need has not diminished, she said Tuesday.

"The science is absolutely clear that the walrus is in trouble from climate change and it's already waited much too long for protection," Wolf said.

President Trump, Alaska, oppose designation

President Donald Trump has called climate change a "total con job" and "hoax" perpetrated to harm U.S. economic

He has pushed to scrap Obama-era initiatives that sought to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and other sources and announced that the country would pull out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, in which nearly 200 nations pledged to reduce carbon emissions. 
Diminished sea ice brought on by climate change in recent years has forced walruses to the Russian and Alaskan coasts in herds of 35,000 or more. (Joel Garlich-Miller/U.S. Fish and Wildlife/The Associated Press)

The state of Alaska in unsuccessful lawsuits challenged the listing of polar bears and ringed seals and opposes the walrus listing.

The director of the state division of Wildlife Conservation Bruce Dale said Wednesday that the walrus population is robust and listing the species based on uncertain future climate change is not justified.

"They've gone through periods of warming before," Dale said of walruses. "All these species have. That in itself doesn't mean that they're in jeopardy of extinction."

Male walruses in summer mostly remain in the Bering Sea, resting on remote coasts when they're not foraging.

Females with calves ride the ice north like a conveyor belt. The females dive for clams, sea snails and other mollusks on the shallow continental shelf while pups rest on ice. As ice recedes, the pack edge is continuously over new feeding grounds.

In recent years, however, as the Arctic has warmed, ice has receded beyond the shallow shelf to water more than 3,050 metres deep, far too deep for walrus to reach the ocean floor.

Herds congregate on beaches 

Instead of remaining on ice over deep water, females with calves have congregated on shore in northwest Alaska and Russia, sometimes in herds of 40,000.

The animals pack beaches, ready to rush to the safety of the water if they perceive danger. When herds are spooked by polar bears, hunters, airplanes or boats, walrus stampedes into the ocean can crush the smallest animals.

A September 11 survey of a mile of beach near the tiny northwestern Alaska village of Point Lay recorded 64 mostly young dead walruses likely killed in stampedes. That followed 131 walruses found dead in September 2009 at Icy Cape about 225 kilometres southwest of Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow.

Climate models project sea ice could disappear, even over deep water, for part of the summer by mid-century, Wolf said.

"Stopping the climate denial, getting momentum nationally at all levels and cutting our greenhouse gas pollution, that's absolutely the key to walruses' survival," Wolf said.

Projections of future sea ice rely on climate modeling and there's uncertainty with models, Dale said. Some argue that listing high-profile species calls attention to global warming, Dale said, but it comes at a cost.

"It's a diversion of resources from meaningful conservation," Dale said. "That's not what the act was intended for."

Both Dale and Wolf expect a decision this week. If the U.S. federal government denies the walrus listing, the decision likely would be challenged in court, Wolf said.

Interior Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials did not respond immediately Wednesday to email requests for comment.