For Immediate Release, May 27, 2008
Contact: Brendan Cummings, (760) 366-2232 x 304
Lawsuit to Be Filed Seeking Endangered Species Act
Protection for the Pacific Walrus
Arctic Marine Mammal Threatened by Global Warming and Oil Development
SAN FRANCISCO— Today the Center for Biological Diversity formally notified Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne of its intent to file suit against him for refusing to process an Endangered Species Act listing petition for the Pacific walrus, imperiled by global warming and increasing oil development in its habitat in the Bering and Chukchi Seas off Alaska.
The Endangered Species Act listing process was initiated by a scientific petition filed by the Center on February 8, 2008. Secretary Kempthorne was required to issue an initial determination on the petition within 90 days, on May 8, 2008. Today’s 60-day notice of intent to sue is a legally required precursor before a lawsuit can be filed to compel Secretary Kempthorne to comply with the law.
“The Arctic is in crisis from global warming. Arctic sea ice is disappearing at a stunning rate that vastly exceeds the predictions of the best climate models,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the petition. “The Pacific walrus is an early victim of our failure to address global warming. As the sea ice recedes, so does the future of the Pacific walrus.”
The Pacific walrus is a well-known resident of the Arctic seas between Alaska and Siberia whose existence is intimately linked with the sea ice. The walrus, whose scientific name means “tooth-walking sea horse,” uses the sea ice as a platform from which to forage for clams and mussels in the relatively shallow waters over the continental shelf. Female walruses and their calves follow the sea ice year-round and rely on the safety of ice floes for nursing their calves and as essential resting platforms between foraging bouts since they cannot continually swim. All Pacific walrus are dependent on sea ice for breeding activities in winter.
However, this sea ice is rapidly shrinking and forcing the Pacific walrus into a land-based existence for which it is not adapted. In 2007, the early disappearance of summer sea ice pushed females and calves onto land on the Russian and Alaskan coasts in abnormally dense herds. As a result, calves suffered high mortality on land due to trampling by the dense herds. Walrus calves, unable to swim as long as adults, have also been observed abandoned by their mothers at sea, which has been attributed to the disappearance of the sea ice on which they would normally rest.
The impacts of global warming on the Pacific walrus will undoubtedly worsen in the coming years. Scientists expect that the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer as early as 2012 and almost certainly by 2030. The Pacific walrus’s winter sea-ice habitat is projected to decline 40 percent by mid-century if current greenhouse gas emissions continue, and any remaining sea ice in winter will be much thinner and will not last as long. On top of this, warming sea temperatures and sea-ice loss appear to be decreasing the abundance of the Pacific walrus’s bottom-dwelling prey.
At the same time the sea-ice habitat of the walrus is melting away, the species’ most important foraging grounds are being auctioned off to oil companies to extract more fossil fuels that will further accelerate global warming and the melting of the Arctic. The Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193, held on February 6, 2008, resulted in 2.7 million acres of important Pacific walrus habitat being bid on by oil companies, thereby opening the door for oil and gas development in a significant portion of the Pacific walrus’s summer range. Numerous seismic surveys associated with oil leasing are planned in walrus habitat in the Chukchi Sea this summer.
Five other lease sales in the Pacific walrus’s habitat in the Chukchi, Beaufort, and Bering Seas are planned by 2012. Increased oil and gas development and the proliferation of shipping routes in the increasingly ice-free Arctic pose threats to the Pacific walrus due to the heightened risk of oil spills and rising levels of noise pollution and human disturbance.
“With rapid action to reduce carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon emissions, combined with a moratorium on new oil-and-gas development and shipping routes in the Arctic, we can still save the Pacific walrus, the polar bear, and the entire Arctic ecosystem,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center. “But the window of opportunity to act is closing rapidly.”
The Pacific walrus is on a growing list of species for which the Center for Biological Diversity has sought Endangered Species Act protection due to global warming. The Center filed petitions for the Kittlitz’s murrelet in 2001, the staghorn and elkhorn corals in the Caribbean in 2004, the polar bear in 2005, 12 of the world’s penguin species in 2006, and the American pika and the ribbon seal in 2007. On May 14, 2008, in response to a court-ordered deadline, Secretary Kempthorne announced the listing of the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Oil and gas development, shipping, and greenhouse gas emissions affecting the Arctic would be subject to greater regulation under the Endangered Species Act if the Pacific walrus is listed. Listing of the Pacific walrus would not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s prohibitions.
The petition is available at http://www.biologicaldiversity.org.