For Immediate Release, December 3, 2008
Contact: Rebecca Noblin, Center for Biological Diversity, (907) 274-1110
Center for Biological Diversity Files Lawsuit to
Protect Pacific Walrus Under Endangered Species Act
Arctic Marine Mammal Threatened by Global Warming and Oil Development
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The Center for Biological Diversity filed suit today against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne for failing to act on an Endangered Species Act listing petition for the Pacific walrus, one of several marine mammals imperiled by global warming and increasing oil development in its habitat in the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska.
The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Anchorage. The Endangered Species Act listing process was initiated by a scientific petition filed by the Center on Feb. 8th. Secretary Kempthorne was required to issue an initial determination within 90 days, by May 8th.
“The Arctic ecosystem is in crisis from global warming,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center and lead author of the original petition to list the Pacific walrus. “The Pacific walrus, like the polar bear, is an early victim of our failure to address global warming. Every day we fail to act, the Pacific walrus’s chance of survival shrinks with the retreating sea ice.”
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 and extensive 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 walrus’ 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 short-lived. 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. Oil companies bid on 2.7 million acres of important Pacific walrus habitat in Chukchi Sea Lease Sale 193, held Feb. 6th, thereby opening the door for oil and gas development in a significant portion of the walrus’ summer range. In connection with those leases, the companies performed numerous seismic surveys in walrus habitat in the Chukchi Sea last summer.
Five other lease sales in the Pacific walrus’ 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 walrus due to the heightened risk of oil spills and rising levels of noise pollution and other 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, the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program director. “But the window of opportunity to act is closing rapidly.”
The Pacific walrus is on a growing list of species for which the Center has sought Endangered Species Act protection due to global warming. The Center filed petitions for the Kittlitz’s murrelet in 2001, staghorn and elkhorn corals in the Caribbean in 2004, the polar bear in 2005, 12 of the world’s penguin species in 2006, the American pika and the ribbon seal in 2007, and three other species of ice seals (bearded, spotted and ringed) in 2008. On May 14th, in response to a court-ordered deadline, Kempthorne announced the listing of the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, or ESA.
“The Secretary’s failure to comply with the ESA’s nondiscretionary deadlines for processing the Center’s petition to list the Pacific walrus deprives these walruses of statutorily mandated protection vitally necessary for their survival,” said Center attorney Rebecca Noblin. “Any further delay by the Secretary in response to the petition frustrates the intent of the Endangered Species Act by reducing the likelihood of survival and recovery of the species due to continued harm from global warming, oil and gas development, and other threats.”
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 walrus would not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s prohibitions.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with 200,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.