For Immediate Release, September 8, 2009
Contact: Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity, (907) 350-4822
Pacific Walrus Advances Toward Endangered Species Protection:
Arctic Marine Mammal Threatened by Global Warming, Oil Development
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today announced that it is launching a full status review to determine whether the Pacific walrus warrants the protections of the Endangered Species Act, due in part to threats from loss of the animal’s sea-ice habitat caused by global warming.
The decision comes in response to a scientific petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity in February 2008 seeking protection for the species, followed by a lawsuit against the Service for failing to respond to the petition.
The primary threat to the walrus is the loss of its sea-ice habitat in the face of global warming. The species is also threatened by planned oil development in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.
“The Endangered Species Act is our nation’s strongest law for wildlife protection and, properly applied, can help the walrus survive the stress of a melting Arctic,” said Rebecca Noblin, with the Center for Biological Diversity in Anchorage. “But unless we take immediate action to reduce greenhouse pollution, the grim reaper of global warming will ultimately claim the Pacific walrus as a victim.”
Listing under the Endangered Species Act will provide broad protection to the Pacific walrus, including a requirement that U.S. federal agencies ensure that any action they carry out, authorize, or fund will not “jeopardize the continued existence” of Pacific walruses or adversely modify important “critical” habitat. The statute also requires the interior secretary to prepare and implement recovery plans for listed species. Listing of the walrus would not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s prohibitions.
The Pacific walrus is a well-known resident of the Arctic seas between Alaska and Siberia whose existence is intimately linked to that of the sea ice. The walrus, whose scientific name means “tooth-walking sea horse,” uses the ice as a platform from which to forage for clams and mussels in the relatively shallow waters over the continental shelf. Female walruses and their calves follow the sea ice year-round and 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 breeding activities in winter.
The rapid melting of sea ice is forcing the Pacific walrus into a land-based existence for which it is not adapted. In 2007, the early and extensive disappearance of summer sea ice pushed females and calves onto land on the Russian and Alaskan coasts in abnormally dense herds. As a result, calves suffered high mortality on land due to trampling by those herds. Walrus calves, unable to swim for as long as adults, have also been observed abandoned by their mothers at sea, which has been attributed to the disappearance of the sea ice on which they would normally rest.
At the same time that the walrus’s sea-ice habitat is melting away, the species’ habitat is being auctioned off to oil companies to extract more fossil fuels, which will further accelerate global warming and the melting of the Arctic. In 2008 the Bush administration leased 2.7 million acres of the Chukchi Sea off Alaska to oil companies. The Chukchi Sea is the most important foraging area for Pacific walrus and is also home to one of only two polar bear populations in the United States.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has defended in court the validity of the Chukchi leases, as well as of permits issued to oil companies allowing harassment of walruses during oil exploration in the Chukchi Sea, even though the underlying leasing plan was thrown out by the court.
“The walrus, the polar bear, and the entire Arctic ecosystem need protections from the threats of climate change and oil and gas development today,” said Noblin. “While this decision is a step in the right direction, unless Secretary Salazar spares the Pacific walrus’s habitat from oil development, in the coming years we will be writing the species’ obituary rather than its recovery plan.”
Under settlement, the Fish and Wildlife Service must make a decision as to whether the species should be protected on September 10, 2010.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 225,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.