Court Settlement Requires Feds to Make Initial Decision by September 10, 2009
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— A federal judge today approved a settlement between the Center for Biological Diversity and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requiring the agency to consider whether the Pacific walrus may warrant the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Under the settlement, the Fish and Wildlife Service must make an initial finding on the Center’s petition requesting protection of the walrus by September 10, 2009, with a subsequent decision as to whether the species should be protected the following year.
The Center petitioned the Service to protect the Pacific walrus in February 2008 and filed suit late last year when the agency refused to process the petition. The primary threat to the walrus is the loss of its sea-ice habitat in the face of global warming. The species is also threatened by planned oil development in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.
“The Endangered Species Act is our nation’s strongest law for wildlife protection and, properly applied, can help shepherd the walrus through the stresses brought on by a melting Arctic,” said Rebecca Noblin, of the Center for Biological Diversity in Anchorage. “But unless we take drastic action to reduce greenhouse pollution, the grim reaper of global warming will ultimately claim the Pacific walrus as a victim.”
Listing under the Endangered Species Act will provide broad protection to the Pacific walrus, including a requirement that U.S. federal agencies ensure that any action they carry out, authorize, or fund will not “jeopardize the continued existence” of Pacific walruses or adversely modify their critical habitat. The statute also requires the secretary of the interior to prepare and implement recovery plans for listed species. Listing of the walrus would not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s prohibitions.
The Pacific walrus is a well-known resident of the Arctic seas between Alaska and Siberia whose existence is intimately linked with the sea ice. The walrus, whose scientific name means “tooth-walking sea horse,” uses the sea ice as a platform from which to forage for clams and mussels in the relatively shallow waters over the continental shelf. Female walruses and their calves follow the sea ice year-round and rely on the safety of ice floes for nursing their calves and as essential resting platforms between foraging bouts, since they cannot continually swim. All Pacific walrus are dependent on sea ice for breeding activities in winter.
The rapid melting of sea ice is forcing the Pacific walrus into a land-based existence for which it is not adapted. In 2007, the early and extensive disappearance of summer sea ice pushed females and calves onto land on the Russian and Alaskan coasts in abnormally dense herds. As a result, calves suffered high mortality on land due to trampling by those herds. Walrus calves, unable to swim as long as adults, have also been observed abandoned by their mothers at sea, which has been attributed to the disappearance of the sea ice on which they would normally rest.
At the same time that the walrus’s sea-ice habitat is melting away, the species’ habitat is being auctioned off to oil companies to extract more fossil fuels that will further accelerate global warming and the melting of the Arctic. In 2008 the Bush administration leased 2.7 million acres of the Chukchi Sea off Alaska to oil companies. The Chukchi Sea is the most important foraging area for Pacific walrus and is also home to one of only two polar bear populations in the United States.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is currently reviewing whether to defend from legal challenges the Chukchi leases as well as other Bush regulations authorizing oil companies to harass walrus and polar bears. However, in the past two weeks, Salazar adopted Bush rules that limit protections for the polar bear, and in a court filing defended the validity of the Chukchi leases even though the underlying leasing plan was thrown out by the court. Salazar’s responses to two other Chukchi-related cases are due in the coming weeks.
“Unfortunately for the walrus, the polar bear, and the entire Arctic ecosystem, Secretary Salazar seems more inclined to protect Big Oil than America’s imperiled wildlife,” said Noblin. “While the Pacific walrus took an important step toward legal protection today, unless Secretary Salazar spares its habitat from oil development, in the coming years we will be writing the species’ obituary rather than its recovery plan.”
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 220,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.