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Partial Walrus Count Causes Conservationists To Panic

June 19, 2009

A partial estimate of Pacific walruses puts their minimum population at a mere 15,164, but researchers admit that the count probably missed some of the animals.

The estimate, made public Thursday, only includes animals in half of the walrus habitats in the Bering and Chukchi seas and does not include those who were swimming.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted the count in reaction to a court deadline insisting that the agency outline the marine mammal stocks most hurt by commercial fishing.

“We’re still working on the final population estimate,” said Suzann Speckman, a wildlife biologist with the agency, to the Associated Press.

A 1990 aerial survey projected the walrus population to be at 201,039.

Pacific walruses are normally found in the two seas surrounding the west coast of Alaska. Walruses normally live on the Beaufort Sea next to Alaska and the East Siberian Sea on the Russian side.

Fish and Wildlife Service officials have been counting since 2006 along with their fellow Russian officials by using thermal imaging. The current deadline for the release of the full count is January 2010, Speckman said.

Brendan Cummings, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, insisted that the wait was frustrating. The center has asked to label the walrus as endangered due to the results of global warming on sea ice.

In some ways, however, the number of remaining walruses is not important, he said.

“You don’t need to know if there are 500 passengers or 1,000 passengers on the Titanic,” he said. “When it hits an iceberg, they’re all endangered.”

Walruses swim under the ice and over the shallow outer continental shelf to eat clams. They cannot swim forever, and females and young animals normally use the ice as a platform to switch hunting areas.

Cummings said that the Fish and Wildlife Service is underestimating the tumultuous conditions in the Arctic.

“The management side of Fish and Wildlife has its head in the sand pretending everything is fine with these species when clearly it is not,” he said.

Federal law calls for annual stock assessments for endangered marine mammals. Wildlife biologist Doug Burn noted that agency officials wanted to have a firmer and more complete walrus population count by now but had technical difficulties with the thermal imaging methodology.

A previous technique that counted walruses by utilizing their body heat was tested on St. Lawrence Island during a warm winter, but did not work during a colder winter the following year, Burn noted.

“We realized we were missing a lot of walrus groups,” he said.

It took about a year to create and master the new technique, Burn added.

The biologists warned against putting too much faith in the partial population count of the 15,164 walruses. Ice types, depth, prey population and other issues will affect the final count, they added.

Determining the population of marine mammals in the Arctic is infamously tricky.

Biologists have to use aircrafts that must operate in the extreme cold, fly at low altitudes in very little light.

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