Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry
March 2018

Vol. 23, No.11 Week of March 18, 2018

Fish & Wildlife sued over walrus listing

Center for Biological Diversity challenges 2017 decision not to list Pacific walrus as endangered because of long-term sea ice loss

The Center for Biological Diversity has sued the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in federal District Court in Alaska over the agency’s decision last year not to list the Pacific walrus as endangered under the terms of the Endangered Species Act. The Pacific walrus is one of a number of animal species that live on and around Arctic sea ice. And, although the animals are currently abundant, there is concern that, as the sea ice shrinks in response to long-term global warming, the loss of essential habitat will cause the animals to die out.

With the shrinking of the summer sea ice extent in recent years, walrus have been observed gathering in large, onshore haulouts, rather than remaining offshore on ice floes.

In the case of the Pacific walrus, the animals need sea ice for courtship, giving birth, nursing their young and resting during foraging and molting, the Center for Biological Diversity said in its court filing.

Opponents of sea ice related listings argue that the species are currently healthy, and not endangered, and that long-term projections of sea ice cover are uncertain. People with economic interests in the Arctic worry about potential restrictions on offshore activities as a consequence of the animals being listed. Native communities in Arctic Alaska hunt walrus as subsistence resources.

Petitioned in 2008

In February 2008 the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned Fish & Wildlife to list the walrus as threatened or endangered as a consequence of climate change. And in February 2011 the agency issued a determination, saying that a listing was warranted. However, the agency deferred the actual listing of the species because of the need to deal with other species deemed to be of higher priority. The agency came to a settlement with the environmental organization, to make a listing decision by the end of September 2017.

Fish & Wildlife issued its decision shortly before the 2017 deadline, saying that it was declining the listing. The agency said it appeared that the walrus were adapting to sea ice loss in a manner not previously anticipated, and that predicting the animals’ behavioral responses far into the future was too speculative to consider.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and the Alaska congressional delegation lauded the decision, commenting that Alaska Native communities depend on the walrus for subsistence use and that the walrus population is fit, healthy and adapting to change.

Haulout trampling risks

The Center for Biological Diversity, in its new filing with the District Court, told the court that, in response to shrinking sea ice, the walrus are tending to gather in onshore haulouts that are few in number but large in scale, rather than spreading out along the coast. This concentration in very large numbers of animals creates a high trampling risk, with an estimated 10,000 walrus dying from a trampling event in Russia in 2007, the environmental organization argued, adding that 133 young walrus had died during a coastal stampede in Alaska in 2009. The environmental organization also told the court that ocean acidification from carbon dioxide is adversely impacting the walrus’ prey, and that the best available science shows that climate change is destroying the sea ice that the walrus depend on for survival.

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