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Pacific Walrus Is Wait-Listed for Protection

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Walruses on ice afloat in the Bering Sea. Millions of years ago, there was no ice to be found in the region.
(Image: © Liz Labunski/USFWS.)

Get in line, walrus. That's the message that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) gave to the Pacific walrus on Tuesday (Feb. 8).

The walrus needs protection under the Endangered Species Act, the FWS ruled, but higher-priority species are blocking its path, Reuters reported.

The delay dashed the hopes of environmental groups that are seeking federal protection for the walruses , which may be threatened by vanishing sea ice.

Pacific walruses rest on floating ice while hunting for food and tending to their offspring. The FWS said that other species are more threatened by loss of sea ice, such as a sea bird that feeds near coastal glaciers, and are in more urgent need of protection. Difficulties counting the walrus population numbers may have also factored into the decision. Scientists do not know if the Pacific walrus population has been declining because they have no baseline population number.

There are about 129,000 Pacific walruses, compared to about 3,500 polar bears in Alaska, according to the latest estimates. Polar bears are one of only three species protected under the Endangered Species Act because of ice loss in Alaska.

Even without proof of a population decline, some suspect that the sea ice loss is causing problems for the walrus. Large groups of walruses are turning to the shorelines of the Chukchi Sea, off the northwest coast of Alaska, not chunks of sea ice, as a rest stop. The shore is far from their sources of food and it puts young walruses at risk of being crushed by stampedes.

The walrus could wait in line for protection indefinitely, along with 250 other species on the candidate list, Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Reuters.