Walruses gather to rest on the shores of the Chukchi Sea near the coastal village of Point Lay, Alaska in 2013. Photo: Ryan Kingsbery/USGS via AP

On World Animal Day, October 4, the Trump administration declined to list the Pacific walrus as endangered. In its determination, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that while the walruses “will experience a future reduction in availability of sea ice” they are unable to reliably predict the magnitude of the effect, and therefore, unable to determine with certainty that the walruses are likely to become endangered “in the foreseeable future”—from now until 2060.

At least the report does employ that most controversial phrase in the Trump administration, ‘climate change,’ even going so far as to state that it’s the most significant risk factor for the future well-being of the Pacific walrus. Too bad this was something the FWS already determined in 2011, under the Obama administration. At that time, the FWS said the walruses deserve the additional protection of being declared threatened, but the actual listing was delayed due to other species being deemed a higher priority.

In the intervening years, the outlook for the walruses hasn’t gotten any better, but the prescription for protection in the face of these existential challenges has now changed dramatically under Trump.

Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, the conservation group that launched legal action to get Pacific walruses listed in 2008, told Earther that the agency’s claim that walruses will adapt to climate change “is baseless, and simply doesn’t match the science showing that walruses are being harmed by the devastating loss of their sea ice habitat.”

She said the decision violates “the ESA’s requirement that the decision be based on the best available science,” and that the CBD will likely challenge this decision in court to make sure walruses get the help they need.

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“All climate models predict that sea ice will continue to deteriorate, increasing the danger for walruses,” she said.

Pacific walruses are impressive creatures. They’re among the largest flipper-footed marine mammals in the world, and males can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. They live in the Arctic waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas along the coast of Alaska, where they require sea ice for giving birth, nursing and resting in safety away from potential predators. The walruses require pack ice that will both support their weight and allow for easy access to the water. This means ice needs to be about two feet or thicker, but ice that rises too far out of the water becomes inaccessible. According to the FWS, generally walruses occupy first-year ice with natural openings not found in areas of extensive, solid ice.

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Patrick Lemons, FWS’s marine mammals management chief in Alaska, told the Associated Press that the agency revised its decision because new data showed the walruses “demonstrated much more ability to change their behaviors than previously thought,” adding that since they can rest on shorelines, the threat of less sea ice is uncertain.

Wolf vehemently rebutted this claim, saying that “land is not a safe place for walruses.”

“Thousands of young walruses have died in recent years from being trampled in stampedes or attacked by predators,” she said. “When walruses are forced to land, they have reduced access to their food and have to swim farther to find food, which increases energetic stress on walruses.”

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Andrea Mederios, a FWS public affairs specialist, told Earther that the latest estimates also indicate that the Pacific walrus population is larger than was previously thought and that “while a listing decision is not specifically based on population size, the size of a population is an indication of the resiliency of that species to respond to environmental stressors.”

She said since 2011, observed changes in walrus behavior in response to the declining sea ice conditions have included “greater use of coastal haulouts, changes in the timing of seasonal migrations, and the ability to travel long distances to access offshore foraging areas.”

The FWS estimates very roughly that there are around 283,000 Pacific walruses left. These walruses’ ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions will undoubtedly be tested in coming years as Arctic sea ice levels continue to drop, with scientists predicting that the Arctic will be devoid of sea ice in summers by the 2030s. This year, Arctic sea ice reached its seasonal minimum on September 13; the 1.79 million square miles was the eighth lowest in the 38-year satellite record according to preliminary data.

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The challenges of dwindling sea ice were made clear this year when hundreds of Pacific walruses hauled out into Arctic shorelines in mid-August due to declining sea ice levels —the earliest haulout ever witnessed by the FWS. New terrestrial haulout spots have been forming along the along the Chukchi coast in August and September over the last few years in response to reductions in late-summer sea ice. Disturbances at these haulouts, which can include many thousands of walruses, can result in mortalities when smaller animals are trampled as part of a stampede into the water. Even helicopters passing overhead can lead to disturbances.

Map showing Pacific walrus coastal haulout locations reported in the past four decades (1980s– 2010s), with a maximum aggregation size of greater than or equal to 1,000 walruses. Image: USGS

A number of different groups weighed in on the FWS decision, and Alaska Republicans, along with some Native groups, endorsed it.

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In a statement provided to Earther, the Eskimo Walrus Commission said it “commends” the FWS decision because it will allow their communities to move forward alongside federal partners in a plan to “co-manage this critical natural resource.”

The “announcement of the decision serves as an important reminder to all Alaskans: the fate of Alaska Native communities is directly tied to these natural, cultural, marine resources,” the statement reads.

Pacific walruses will continued to be protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which includes prohibitions on harvest, import, and export.