As ice melts, some say wal­ruses need more pro­tec­tion

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - REGION - 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 gov­ern­ment’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.

In­ac­ces­si­bil­ity pro­tected wal­ruses for decades, but a rapid de­cline in sum­mer sea ice has made them vul­ner­a­ble.

In the Chukchi Sea be­tween Alaska and Rus­sia, where Pa­cific wal­rus fe­males and ju­ve­niles spend their sum­mer, ice could be ab­sent dur­ing that sea­son by 2060 or sooner, ac­cord­ing to the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice.

Since 1981, an area more than dou­ble the size of Texas — 610,000 square miles — has be­come un­avail­able to Arc­tic ma­rine mam­mals by sum­mer’s end, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Snow and Ice Data Cen­ter.

By late Au­gust, as sea ice re­cedes beyond the shal­low con­ti­nen­tal shelf, fe­male wal­ruses and their calves face a choice: Stay on ice over wa­ter too deep to reach the ocean floor for feed­ing — or come ashore for rest pe­ri­ods, where the small­est an­i­mals can be crushed in stam­pedes trig­gered by a hunter, air­plane or bear.

More open wa­ter al­ready has meant more ship traf­fic. Wal­ruses also could find more hu­mans in their habi­tat with a re­ver­sal of U.S. pol­icy on Arc­tic off­shore drilling. Former Pres­i­dent Barack Obama per­ma­nently with­drew most Arc­tic wa­ters from lease sales, but Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in April 2017 an­nounced he was re­vers­ing Obama, a de­ci­sion be­ing chal­lenged in court. The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­posed five-year off­shore leas­ing plan in­cludes sales in the Chukchi Sea.

Des­ig­nat­ing wal­ruses as threat­ened would mean oil exploration com­pa­nies would have to con­sult with fed­eral wildlife of­fi­cials to make sure drill rigs don’t en­dan­ger the an­i­mals. How­ever, Trump’s In­te­rior and Com­merce de­part­ments in July pro­posed ad­min­is­tra­tive changes to the species law that would end au­to­matic pro­tec­tions for threat­ened plants and an­i­mals and set lim­its on des­ig­nat­ing habi­tat as cru­cial to re­cov­ery.

Wal­ruses are no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult to count — and pop­u­la­tion es­ti­mates range widely. A pre­lim­i­nary one in 2017 put the num­ber at 283,213, with the caveat that it could be as low as 93,000 or as high as 478,975.

The ar­ray of stresses and un­cer­tainty about the wal­ruses’ fu­ture are enough ev­i­dence for list­ing them as threat­ened, the Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­i­cal Di­ver­sity ar­gues.

In the last decade, wal­ruses that gath­ered on shores have suf­fered hun­dreds of stam­pede deaths, and the loss of ice floes has pushed them away from feed­ing ar­eas, said Shaye Wolf, cli­mate sci­ence di­rec­tor for the non­profit con­ser­va­tion group.

“They’re not adapt­ing. They’re suf­fer­ing,” Wolf said.

Sci­en­tists ad­vis­ing the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice say the an­swer is not so clear cut, and much is un­known about how sea ice loss will af­fect wal­ruses.


A fe­male Pa­cific wal­rus rests in 2013 in Point Lay, 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 be­cause of cli­mate warm­ing.

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