As ice melts, wal­ruses need bet­ter pro­tec­tion

The Republican Herald - - LOCAL - By DAN JOLING

AN­CHOR­AGE, Alaska — Given a choice be­tween giv­ing birth on land or sea ice, Pa­cific wal­rus moth­ers most of­ten choose ice.

Like­wise, they pre­fer sea ice for molt­ing, mat­ing, nurs­ing and rest­ing be­tween dives for food. Trou­ble is, as the cen­tury pro­gresses, there’s go­ing to be far less ice around.

How well wal­ruses cope with less sea ice is at the heart of a le­gal fight over whether wal­ruses should be listed as a threat­ened species, giv­ing them an added pro­tec­tion against hu­man en­croach­ments.

The fed­eral govern­ment in 2008 listed po­lar bears as a threat­ened species be­cause of di­min­ished sea ice brought on by cli­mate warm­ing. That year the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity pe­ti­tioned to do the same for wal­ruses.

How­ever, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice con­cluded in Oc­to­ber 2017 that wal­ruses are adapt­ing and no one has proven that they “need” sea ice.

“It is un­known whether Pa­cific wal­ruses can give birth, con­duct their nurs­ing dur­ing im­me­di­ate post- natal care pe­riod, or com­plete courtship on land,” said Jus­tice Depart­ment lawyers in de­fend­ing the de­ci­sion.

A fed­eral judge in Alaska will hear the cen­ter’s law­suit chal­leng­ing the gover nment’s de­ci­sion not to list the wal­rus as threat­ened. There is no court date set for the law­suit.

Pa­cific wal­rus males grow to 12 feet long and up to 4,000 pounds — more than an av­er­age mid­size sedan. Fe­males reach half that weight. Wal­ruses dive and use sen­si­tive whiskers to find clams and snails in dim light on the sea floor.

His­tor­i­cally hunted for ivory tusks, meat and blub­ber,

wal­ruses since 1972 have been shielded by the Ma­rine Mam­mal Pro­tec­tion Act. Only Alaska Na­tive sub­sis­tence hunters may legally kill them.

An En­dan­gered Species Act list­ing would re­quire the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice to des­ig­nate crit­i­cal habi­tat for wal­ruses and plan for their re­cov­ery. Fed­eral agen­cies, be­fore is­su­ing per­mits for de­vel­op­ment such as off­shore drilling, would be re­quired to en­sure wal­ruses and their habi­tat would not be jeop­ar­dized.


Wal­ruses rest on an ice flow in the Chukchi Sea, Alaska. A law­suit mak­ing its way through fed­eral court in Alaska will de­cide whether Pa­cific wal­ruses should be listed as a threat­ened species, giv­ing them ad­di­tional pro­tec­tions. Wal­ruses use sea ice for giv­ing birth, nurs­ing and rest­ing be­tween dives for food, but the amount of ice over sev­eral decades has steadily de­clined due to cli­mate warm­ing.

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