December 5, 2008

Group Files Lawsuit To Protect Pacific Walrus

A conservation group hopes to force the federal government to add the Pacific walrus to the threatened species list by taking them to court.

On Wednesday, the Center for Biological Diversity brought a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for not acting on a petition seeking to protect the Pacific walrus.

According to the group, the Pacific walrus is threatened by global warming which melts Arctic sea ice.  The group has also filed petitions to protect polar bears and Arctic seals.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was required by law to decide by May 8 if the petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity had merit.  The government agency did not meet the deadline.

According to Rebecca Noblin, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, the delay by the government could harm the walrus population.

"Every day that goes by without protecting the walrus, we're emitting more greenhouse gases, accelerating the ice melt," Noblin said.

"In addition to the climate change, the other main threat is oil and gas development that continues to go forward without any consultation regarding walrus," Noblin added.

On Wednesday, Fish and Wildlife spokesman Bruce Woods said the agency was unable to make a decision on the petition due to limited resources.  Endangered species listings are driven by legal action, forcing the government agency to rank its actions by court order, Woods said.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, summer sea ice in 2008 dipped to 1.74 million square miles, which was the second lowest mark since satellite monitoring began in 1979.

The Pacific walrus dives from sea ice in search of clams and other food, while females use sea ice as a moving platform, riding it north in spring and summer.

Sea ice in the Chukchi Sea has receded beyond the outer continental shelf the last two years, making it impossible for walruses to dive to reach clams.  In 2007, herds gathered on Siberian and Alaskan shores waiting for ice to reform.

The Center for Biological Diversity also believes warming sea temperature may be reducing the number of creatures walruses feed on.

The group hopes to slow offshore petroleum development by having the walrus added to the threatened species list.  

In February, oil companies bid on 2.7 million acres of the Chukchi Sea.  

According to Bruce Woods, the Fish and Wildlife Service has nearly completed a population count of walruses, and expects the numbers to be released in the coming weeks.


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