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.
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."
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."
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."
Above: Dead calf walrus in front of the village of Wainwright 42 miles north of Icy Cape, Alaska, September 2009. Source: USGS.
Fish and Wildlife Service:
- Pacific Walrus to be Designated a Candidate for Endangered Species Protection. Press release, February 9, 2011
- Status Review of the Pacific Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). [PDF, 3 Mb] Prepared and Edited by Joel Garlich-Miller, James G. MacCracken, Jonathan Snyder, Rosa Meehan, Marilyn Myers, James M. Wilder, Ellen Lance, and Angela Matz, January, 2011.
- Pacific Walrus 12-month Finding: Questions and Answers. [PDF, 41 kb 8 Feb 2011.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Considers New Information in Determining Whether Listing the Pacific Walrus Under the Endangered Species Act is Warranted. Press release (10 Sep 2010) from the U.S. 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 Climate Change Blog:
- Arctic section of the blog. Monitor postings via the Arctic RSS Feed.
- Arctic Sea Ice Decline and its Impacts: Online Resources
- Video Footage Shows Huge Walrus Haul-Out Along Shoreline of Alaska's Point Lay. 17 Sep 2010.
- Alaska Public Radio: Walrus Crowding Alaska’s Northwest Beaches. 17 Sep 2010.
- Tens of Thousands of Walruses Concentrating Along Alaska's Shore. 11 Sep 2010.
- USGS Confirms Thousands of Walruses Hauling-Out on Alaska's Northwest Coast as Sea Ice Rapidly Retreats. 7 September 2010.
- Walruses Again Being Forced Ashore as Arctic Sea Ice Retreats 30 Aug 2010
- The Pacific Walrus says: "The time has come...We have many things to talk about, people!" 18 Aug 2010.
- Dramatic Footage Shows Consequences for Walruses as Arctic Warms, 1 Oct. 2009
- As Arctic Sea Ice Reaches Annual Minimum, Large Number of Walrus Corpses Found Along Alaska Shoreline (18 Sept 2009)
- Sea Ice Reaches Annual Minimum, Impacts of Arctic Warming Grow (16 Sep 2009)
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Reports on Pacific Walrus and Polar Bear Stocks in Alaska (3 Jan 2010)
- Arctic section of WWF International Web site
- WWF US > Priority Places > The Arctic
- Walrus Populations Threatened by Climate Change, video/photos, WWF, 2009
- Arctic Climate Feedbacks: Global Implications [PDF], August 2009, WWF
- Walrus: Facing New Challenges in a Changing Arctic [PDF]. Fact sheet (August 2010)
- Walrus Populations Threatened by Climate Change, video/photos, WWF, 2009
- Arctic Walrus Haul Outs Due to Sea Ice Decline, video, Interview with WWF’s Arctic Expert Geoff York (Sep 2009)
- New study about Arctic sea-ice, greenhouse gases and polar bear habitat. Press release (15 Dec 2010).
- Arctic sea ice decline: Projected changes in timing and extent of sea ice in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. By D.C. Douglas, 2010. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2010-1176, 32 p.
- Enumeration of Pacific walrus carcasses on beaches of the Chukchi Sea in Alaska following a mortality event, September 2009. Report (dtd Dec 2009) by Fischbach, A.S., Monson, D.H. , and Jay, C.V. U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2009-1291, 10 p.
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.