For Immediate Release, December 30, 2009
Contact: Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110
New Federal Studies: Alaskan Polar Bear and Walrus in Trouble
Stock Assessments Indicate Tenuous Future for Arctic Icons
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Today, responding to a court-ordered deadline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized long-overdue reports documenting the status of polar bears and Pacific walrus in Alaska. The reports confirm that polar bear populations in Alaska are declining and that Pacific walrus are under threat. Both species are being hurt by the loss of their sea-ice habitat due to global warming, oil and gas development, and unsustainable harvest.
“Polar bears and walrus are losing their sea-ice home to global warming at an alarming rate,” said Rebecca Noblin, in the Anchorage office of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unless we act fast to reduce greenhouse pollution and protect their habitat from oil development, we stand to lose both of these icons of the Arctic.”
Two polar bear populations occur in Alaska: a southern Beaufort Sea stock that is shared with Canada and a Chukchi/Bering Sea stock that is shared with Russia. The Pacific walrus occurs in the Bering and Chukchi seas and is shared with Russia.
According to the assessment, both the southern Beaufort Sea polar bear stock, estimated at 1,397 bears, and the Chukchi/Bering Sea polar bear stock, estimated at 2,000 bears, are declining. The report also found that the human harvest of both polar bear populations exceeds sustainable harvest levels. The annual harvest of 54 bears from the southern Beaufort Sea population exceeds the sustainable harvest level of 22 bears per year, while the annual harvest from the Bering/Chukchi Sea population of 37 bears from Alaska and 120 to 250 bears from Russia greatly exceeds the sustainable harvest level of 30 bears per year. According to the assessment, the Bering/Chukchi Sea population is “reduced based on harvest levels that were demonstrated to be unsustainable.”
For the Pacific walrus, the Service estimated a minimum population of 129,000 animals. The annual human-caused mortality of between 4,963 and 5,460 animals greatly exceeded the sustainable harvest rate of 2,580 animals per year.
Of the three population estimates, only the estimate for the well-studied southern Beaufort Sea polar bears is considered reliable. The estimate for the Chukchi/Bering Sea polar bear population is based on incomplete data and could be an overestimate, while the walrus number is an underestimate as it only represents surveys in about half of the walrus habitat and does not account for walrus that were in the water rather than hauled out on ice during counting. However, despite the unknowns, the Wildlife Service considers both of Alaska’s polar bear populations to be in decline.
“The science is in, and it shows that Alaska’s polar bears and walrus are in big trouble,” added Noblin. “There is no longer any excuse to delay action to protect these great Arctic mammals. Without their sea-ice habitat, America’s polar bears and walrus are doomed.”
In addition to threats caused by global warming, polar bears and walrus face increased oil drilling and industrialization in their Arctic home. In the past two months, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has approved oil-company plans to drill in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2010, both without adequate environmental review.
“If this administration is serious about saving these last great icons of the North, it must bid farewell to harmful Bush-era drilling plans for the Arctic,” said Noblin. “A rational approach to polar bear and walrus conservation does not include turning their habitat into a polluted industrial zone.”
The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service prepare stock assessments for marine mammals. To ensure that decision-makers have the most accurate information, stock assessments are supposed to be revised every year for imperiled marine mammals and every three years for other species. While the National Marine Fisheries Service — the agency responsible for whales, dolphins, and seals — has largely complied with this requirement, the Fish and Wildlife Service, responsible for polar bears, walrus, sea otters, and manatees, had completely ignored it.
In 2007 the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Wildlife Service and obtained a court order requiring the release of updated reports. Stock assessments for the Florida manatee were released today, and sea otter reports were issued last year.
The polar bear is currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act as a result of a petition and litigation by the Center. In September the Wildlife Service found that listing the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act may be warranted. Pursuant to a settlement of a Center lawsuit, the Wildlife Service must make a final decision on whether to list the Pacific walrus by September 10, 2010.
A copy of the stock assessments released today can be found at http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/mmm/stock/stock.htm.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 240,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.