February 9, 2011

Govt Agency Calling For Additional Walrus Protection

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that the Pacific walrus needs additional protection from the threat of climate warming but cannot be added to the threatened or endangered list because other species have higher priority.

Agency spokesman Bruce Wood said the walrus will be added to the "warranted but precluded" list, which is a designation under the Endangered Species Act that allows delays in listing if the agency is making progress listing other species and does not have resources to make a decision on others.

"The threats to the walrus are very real, as evidenced by this 'warranted' finding," said Geoff Haskett, the service's Alaska region director, in a statement. "But its greater population numbers and ability to adapt to land-based haulouts make its immediate situation less dire than those facing other species such as the polar bear."

He said cooperation with Alaska Native group, the state and other partners could lessen the long-term impact of climate change for the walrus and help it avoid an endangered listing.

The decision was condemned by the Center for Biological Diversity, citing threats to walrus' sea ice habitat.  Center spokeswoman Shaye Wolf said the warranted but precluded designation is a black hole for imperiled species.

"This decision acknowledges the walrus is facing extinction due to climate change but the Obama administration is withholding the protections that could help the walrus survive," Wolf told Associated Press correspondent Dan Joling.

Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center have tracked a steady decline in sea ice in recent years.  Climate models have projected that summer sea ice could disappear by 2030.

Alaska's walrus population spends virtually the entire winter in the Bering Sea on the edge of sea ice that forms each year.  In spring, ice melts and the edge of the sea ice moves north.

Older males spend the summer in the Bering Sea, foraging from islands or remote coastal shores.  However, females and pups ride the ice edge through the Bering Strait and into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas, diving to the shallow continental shelf searching for clams.

Summer ice has receded well beyond the continental shelf over water too deep for walrus to dive to reach clams.  Walrus in the last few years congregated by the thousands of Alaska's northwest shore.  Larger numbers took refuge on the Russian side of the Chukchi Sea.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was under a court-ordered deadline to decide by January 31 whether to recommend walrus for listing.  Woods said the decision will be in a year.

Woods said the lower the number, the higher priority and walrus have been deemed a nine.

The state of Alaska has taken an aggressive approach in objecting to Arctic endangered species listings, arguing that populations have not crashed.  The state sued to overturn the listing of polar bears and has given notice it will sue over designation of critical habitat.

Ninety-percent of state general fund revenue comes from the petroleum industry and state officials have been looking to offshore drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, prime habitat for polar bear and walrus.

U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski said walrus are already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and that she was disappointed by the decision.

"Once FWS went down this road with the polar bear listing, where the agency used highly variable modeling to project 50 years into the future possible impacts of projected loss of sea ice, it was inevitable that more listings of other Arctic species would follow," she said. "I believe that the future listing of the walrus will be premature and highly speculative until we have verifiable science which shows that the projected loss of habitat does endanger a currently healthy species."

The proposed listing was endorsed by the federal Marine Mammal Commission, which oversees marine mammal conservation policies carried out by federal regulatory agencies.

"Without question, the warming of the Arctic is destroying, modifying, and curtailing walrus habitat and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future," the commission said in a letter to Rowand Gould, acting USFWS director.


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