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Walrus must wait for endangered species protection

walrus.jpgEnvironmental groups are not happy with the Department of Interior’s decision to place the Pacific Walrus in the legal waiting room of the Endangered Species List, called the “warranted but precluded” list. There, it will join other animals caught in legal limbo such as the sage grouse and wolverines.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has found the walrus is indeed threatened by climate change, but they are not as high priority as other, more imperiled, creatures.

In doing so, it has postponed a decision that would have decided the fate of oil drilling in the prime walrus habitat of the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.

The Pacific walrus lives off the coast of Alaska and relies on arctic sea ice for foraging. It uses ice platforms as a resting place while foraging at the bottom of the sea. Females and cubs follow the ice around all year.

With the melting of Arctic ice due to climate change, walruses have had to shift from ice platforms to land. The last four summers have seen thousands congregate on the coasts of Alaska and Russia, where they are vulnerable to predation.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a non profit organization, had petitioned to list the creatures under the Endangered Species Act of 2008.

Listing of the creatures under the Act would have hampered a proposed offshore oil drilling project in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska. Industry groups and Senator Lisa Murkowski (R – Alaska) have firmly come down against the listing.

The new ruling by the Department of Interior has pleased neither industry nor environmental interests. A “warranted but precluded” decision means the animal warrants protection but not immediately. It will join a list and will re-examined every 12 months until a final decision on whether or not it should join the endangered species list is reached.

The CBD has described the waiting list as a “black hole” that already has 250 species waiting for protection. Meanwhile, Murkowski said in her press release, “I am disappointed, but not surprised, that the FWS would recommend that the Pacific walrus warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act.”

Reuters has quoted agency spokesman Bruce Woods as saying the population of walruses is relatively healthy at 129,000. In comparison, polar bears number 3,500 in Alaska. But there are also no baseline counts for walruses, so even if there are declines, there is no way to confirm this observation, he said.

The polar bear has already been listed, and the Arctic ringed and bearded seals were proposed as threatened last year due to climate change.

Image: photo by flickkerphotos via Flickr under Creative Commons.


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