For Immediate Release, April 21, 2011
Contact: Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110
Lawsuit Seeks to Rescue Pacific Walrus From Indefinite Wait for Endangered Species Protection
Obama Administration Acknowledges Climate’s Extinction Threat to Walruses But Refuses to Provide Protection
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The Center for Biological Diversity formally notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today of its intent to sue the agency for failing to protect the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act, despite finding that the walrus is threatened with extinction because of climate change. On Feb. 8, the Service designated the Pacific walrus as a “candidate” species under the Endangered Species Act, which means the walrus could wait indefinitely for protection.
“The Obama administration has acknowledged that climate change threatens the survival of the Pacific walrus but it’s chosen not to step in to stop their extinction,” said the Center’s Alaska director Rebecca Noblin. “It’s like the captain of the Titanic saying he knows the ship is about to hit an iceberg, but he’s too busy filling out the paperwork to turn the wheel.”
The gregarious Pacific walrus lives in the Arctic waters off Alaska and is dependent on sea ice for giving birth, nursing young and resting. Female walruses and calves follow the sea ice year-round. While the female dives to the bottom of the shallow continental shelf to feed on clams, the calf rests on the sea ice, safe from predators. In recent years, summer sea ice has disappeared from the walrus’s shallow foraging grounds, leaving females and calves with no ice floes for resting and forcing them to come ashore. Walruses have congregated by the thousands on Alaskan and Russian shores during three of the past four summers. Once on land, calves are vulnerable to being killed by predators or trampled to death in stampedes. Several thousand young walruses were killed in stampedes in Russia in 2007, and 133 young walruses perished in an Alaska stampede in 2009.
The Pacific walrus also faces threats from offshore oil drilling in its Arctic home. The Obama administration recently proposed regulations that would allow the oil industry to harm and harass Pacific walrus in the course of exploration and drilling activities in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea over the next five years. Shell Oil is proposing to drill multiple exploratory wells in walrus habitat off of Alaska in 2012 and 2013. The everyday operations of the oil industry hurt walrus by creating excessive noise and other disturbance. Worse, an oil spill in the Arctic could have dire consequences for walrus, and there exists no technology for cleaning oil in icy Arctic waters.
“The time to act to save Pacific walrus is now,” said Noblin. “The greenhouse gases we emit today will stay in the atmosphere for centuries. If we’re to have any hope of saving the Pacific walrus, we must rapidly reduce our carbon dioxide emissions to below 350 ppm. Not only the Pacific walrus, but an entire Arctic ecosystem hangs in the balance.”
The Service’s “warranted but precluded” decision places the walrus on a waiting list for protection — a list that has been described as a “black hole” for imperiled species. There are currently more than 250 species on that list, including many that have been languishing for two decades or more. At least 24 species have gone extinct while they were on the “candidate” list. The Act allows the Service to make a “warranted but precluded” finding only in a specific circumstance: if a lack of resources prevents it from assembling the information needed to support a listing proposal and if it is also making “expeditious progress” in listing more imperiled species. Neither condition is met here.
The Center submitted a scientific petition to list the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act in February 2008 and sued to obtain the court deadline for a listing decision after the Service illegally delayed responding to the petition. Listing the walrus would not affect subsistence harvest by Alaska natives, which is generally exempted from the law’s prohibitions.
The federal government has acknowledged that several other Arctic species are threatened with extinction due to climate change. As a result of Center petitions, the polar bear was protected as a threatened species in 2008, and two Arctic ice seals — the ringed and bearded seals — were proposed as threatened species in 2010.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.