For Immediate Release, February 8, 2011
Contact: Shaye Wolf, (415) 632-5301
Pacific Walrus Found Imperiled by Global Warming But Left Without Protections
SAN FRANCISCO— Responding to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Department of the Interior today announced that the Pacific walrus deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act because of global warming, but that the department will not implement these protections. Instead, Interior will designate the Pacific walrus as a “candidate” species, which means the walrus could wait indefinitely for protection under the Act.
Today’s decision goes against the recommendation of the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent federal scientific advisory body, which endorsed listing the Pacific walrus as a threatened species.
“The Obama administration has acknowledged that the walrus is facing extinction due to climate change, yet is withholding the very protections that can help save it,” said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center. “It’s like having a doctor declare that you are in critical condition, but then just leaving you unattended in the hospital’s waiting room.”
The Pacific walrus, which lives in the Arctic waters off Alaska, is threatened by the loss of the sea ice it needs for giving birth, nursing young and resting. Female walruses and calves follow the sea ice year-round. While the female dives to the bottom of the shallow continental shelf to feed on clams, the calf rests on the sea ice, safe from predators. In recent years, summer sea ice has disappeared from the walrus’s shallow foraging grounds, leaving females and calves with no ice floes for resting and forcing them to come ashore. Walruses have congregated on the thousands on Alaskan and Russian shores during three of the last four summers. Once on land, calves are vulnerable to being killed by predators or trampled to death in stampedes. Several thousand young walruses were killed in stampedes in Russia in 2007, and 133 young walruses perished in a stampede in Alaska in 2009.
The Pacific walrus is also threatened by proposed offshore oil drilling in Alaskan waters, where an oil spill in an icy ocean would be impossible to clean up. The Obama administration is currently deciding whether to permit drilling in the heart of walrus habitat in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska. Listing the walrus under the Endangered Species Act, along with the protection of its critical habitat, would make approval of this drilling more difficult.
“The choices we make today determine whether we will preserve a world that still contains such wonders as walruses,” said Wolf. “Our government’s decision to indefinitely delay protection increases the odds that we will lose walruses forever. If instead we give the walrus the full benefits of the Endangered Species Act and reduce carbon dioxide to a safe level — below 350 parts per million — we can protect the walrus and the Arctic.”
Today’s “warranted but precluded” decision places the walrus on a waiting list for protection, which has been described as a “black hole” for imperiled species. There are currently more than 250 species on that list, including many that have been languishing for two decades or more. The Act allows the Interior Department to make a “warranted but precluded” finding only in a specific circumstance: if a lack of resources prevents it from assembling the information needed to support a listing proposal and if it is also making “expeditious progress” in listing more imperiled species. Neither circumstance is true for the walrus.
The Center submitted a scientific petition to list the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act in February 2008 and sued to obtain the court deadline for today’s decision after the Interior Department illegally delayed responding to the petition. Listing the walrus would not affect subsistence harvest by Alaska natives, which is generally exempted from the law’s prohibitions.
The federal government has acknowledged that several other Arctic species are threatened with extinction due to climate change. As a result of Center petitions, the polar bear was protected as a threatened species in 2008, and two Arctic ice seals — the ringed and bearded seals — were proposed as threatened species in 2010.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 320,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.