U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Pacific Walrus "warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act"

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a decision today that the Pacific walrus "warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act," noting that it "is primarily threatened by the loss of sea ice in its arctic habitat due to climate change."  However, the agency said that "an official rulemaking to propose that protection is currently precluded by the need to address other higher priority species."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a decision today that the Pacific walrus "warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act," noting that it "is primarily threatened by the loss of sea ice in its arctic habitat due to climate change."  However, the agency said in its press release (Pacific Walrus to be Designated a Candidate for Endangered Species Protection) that "an official rulemaking to propose that protection is currently precluded by the need to address other higher priority species."  The agency therefore has decided that "the walrus will be added to the agency’s list of candidates for ESA protection and its future status will be reviewed annually."

The decision is an important recognition of the profound negative impact that a warming climate is having on the Arctic environment,” said Margaret Williams, Director of World Wildlife Fund’s U.S. Arctic Field Program.

Walruses haul-out along Alaska's shoreline of the Chukchi Sea.  Source: USGS.

Above: Walruses haul-out along Alaska's shoreline of the Chukchi Sea as sea ice disappears from the region in September 2010.  Source: USGS.

The FWS also released with its decision, Pacific Walrus 12-month Finding: Questions and Answers [PDF, 41 kb]. The agency explained its "primary reasons" for concluding that a listing was warranted:

"The Service concluded that loss of sea ice, with the resulting changes to walrus distribution and life history patterns likely to occur as a result, will lead to a population decline, and is a threat to Pacific walrus in the foreseeable future. Over time, walrus will be forced to rely on terrestrial haulouts to a greater extent. This will expose all individuals, but especially calves, juveniles, and females, to increased levels of stress from depletion of prey, increased energetic costs to obtain prey, trampling injuries and mortalities, and predation. In addition, the Service has determined that current subsistence harvest levels are a threat to the walrus population in the foreseeable future."

A yearling calf (center) with its mother hauled-out at Point Lay, Alaska.  The smaller younger walruses can be trampeled to death by much larger adult males when they are frightened into stampeding into the water.  Source: USGS.

Above: A yearling calf (center) with its mother hauled-out at Point Lay, Alaska.  The smaller younger walruses can be trampled to death when much larger adults are frightened into stampeding into the water.  Source: USGS

Why is the ice melting?  The FWS says:

"The scientific consensus is that arctic sea ice habitat is declining due to melting from global warming, atmospheric changes (including circulation and clouds), and changes in oceanic circulation. As a result, sea ice is beginning to melt earlier in the summer, retreating farther during the late summer and early fall, and refreezing later in the fall than has ever been observed. In addition, research has demonstrated a decline in multi-year ice (ice that remains year round), and decreasing ice thickness. The length of the arctic melt season is increasing by a rate of approximately 13.1 days per decade. "

In the Questions and Answers document, FWS explains what happens next:

"It is difficult to predict how long it might be before the Service is able to prepare a proposed rule for the Pacific walrus. The agency’s ability to address this species will depend on available funding as well as the number of species facing greater and more imminent threats. While the Pacific walrus is a candidate species, the Service will review its status and work with states, other federal agencies, private landowners, tribes, and other partners to strengthen efforts to conserve the species.

When a species becomes a candidate it is given a "listing priority number" (LPN). This number is given because there are not enough Service personnel, time, or money to propose all the candidate species for listing. The purpose of the LPN is to ensure the species in the most trouble are given the highest priority. The Service’s listing process works from the highest priority LPNs (1) down to lowest (12) to fund listing actions.

The Service has assigned an LPN of 9 to the Pacific walrus, which places it near the end of the Service’s nationwide listing priorities."

The Center for Biological Diversity criticized the “warranted but precluded” decision in a press release (Pacific Walrus Found Imperiled by Global Warming But Left Without Protections) saying that the "decision places the walrus on a waiting list for protection, which 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."

In the FWS Status Review of the Pacific Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) [PDF, 3 Mb] released by the agency with today's decision, scientists conclude:

"The Pacific walrus is experiencing habitat modification due to a warming climate and loss of summer sea-ice that has not occurred for several thousand years. Our review and analysis of potential threats suggests that the intensity of stressors will continue to increase in the future and will likely result in a population decline. The time frame over which population changes are likely to occur and the magnitude of population level impacts are uncertain."

The researchers note that of the stressors they evaluated, harvest levels and greenhouse gas emissions were the two which had the largest impacts on the prospects for the Pacific walruses -- suggesting that "effective mitigation of these stressors could influence future population outcomes." 

The authors say that that there currently are "no effective mechanisms to regulate the global greenhouse gas emissions that are driving -- via climate warming -- the loss of sea-ice habitats."  They add that mitigating greenhouse gas emissions "will require comprehensive international agreements."

Slowing down the rate of sea ice loss and minimizing related impacts on this threatened species demands action from the American public and our leaders,” says WWF's Margaret WilliamsShe emphasizes  the importance of Pacific walrus to Arctic native people who have sustainably harvested these animals for centuries. Walrus are an important part of the nutritional, cultural, and economic lives of many Arctic native communities.  “It is essential to preserve the rights of Alaska’s native communities to continue subsistence activity and to ensure that they are intimately involved in designing solutions in the wake of this decision,” Williams said. 

The FWS  did not accept the recommendation of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), which in a  3 Jan 2011 letter  to the FWS [PDF] recommended that walruses be listed as threatened under ESA.  "Without question, the warming of the Arctic is destroying, modifying, and curtailing walrus habitat and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future," wrote MMC Executive Director, Timothy Ragen.  "The loss of sea ice habitat is perhaps the most significant threat to the walrus population," he said. 

He pointedly noted that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provides "a compelling case that sea ice will continue to decline for the foreseeable future unless human societies are willing to take meaningful action to address the factors disrupting the climate."  He continues:

"Those studies also indicate that, even if meaningful actions were taken soon, their effects would not be clearly evident until the latter half of this century because of the lagged effects of greenhouse gases that already have been emitted and that will persist in the atmosphere for decades.  Unfortunately, our political, social and economic systems have not yet responded to the already strong evidence of climate disruption.  Given that inertia, plus the fact that the underlying causes may worsen over time, the Marine Mammal Commission sees no basis for confidence that climate disruption and its effects on walrus habitat are being or soon will be brought under control."

Dead calf walrus in front of the village of Wainwright 42 miles north of Icy Cape, Alaska, September 2009.  Source: USGS.

Above: Dead calf walrus in front of the village of Wainwright 42 miles north of Icy Cape, Alaska, September 2009.   Source: USGS.

Online Resources:

 

Fish and Wildlife Service:

Pacific Walrus Found Imperiled by Global Warming But Left Without Protections. Press release from the Center for Biological Diversity, 8 Feb 2011.

Walrus on Endangered Species Waiting List.  Posting by Andrew Revkin, N.Y. Times DotEarth blog, 8 Feb 2011.

WWF

USGS

Biologist Tracks Walruses Forced Ashore As Ice Melts. National Public Radio, Weekend Edition, 26 September 2010.

Pacific walrus on scientists' radar.  "New tracking technology is giving scientists a better understanding of walrus populations in the Bering and Chukchi Seas between Alaska and Russia. Rob Muir reports."  Reuters video, Jun 30 2010.

Mother Walrus Cuddles Her Calf, video, National Geographic, 11 May 2006

Walrus Calves Stranded by Melting Sea Ice.  Posting (13 April 2006) from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

 

Share this