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Ruling Puts Walruses Facing Habitat Loss In Limbo

The Pacific walrus has to wait to be placed on the endangered species list.
The Pacific walrus has to wait to be placed on the endangered species list.

The Interior Department has decided that global warming is threatening the Pacific walrus, but the government has decided not to list the animal on the endangered species list yet.

Instead, the Interior Department is putting walruses in a kind of purgatory where they join some 250 animals and plants that deserve the protection of the endangered species list, but aren't getting it.

"Where walrus fall on this priority system is they're a little bit low on the totem pole, you might say," says Rosa Meehan, who manages marine mammals in Alaska for the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service.

She says there's no question that walrus numbers will be reduced as sea ice declines in northern Alaska. But the government has limited money and uses it for species most likely to become extinct. Meehan says the condition of walruses is less dire because they live a long time and still are numerous.

The Interior Department did list polar bears as a threatened species two years ago because of shrinking sea ice. But Meehan says unlike polar bears, walruses don't need the ice to feed themselves.

"They can rest on land and go out and feed in the water and return to land," she says. "And so because they have that ability to continue feeding even if there's no ice, that's a pretty dramatic difference between walrus and polar bears."

But some biologists say melting sea ice threatens walruses even more than polar bears because walruses depend on sea ice for reproduction.

Delaying protection for the walrus means that we increase the chances of losing the walrus forever.

"The ice is disappearing. If they've got no ice, they've got to go on land. They go on land in the thousands," says Carleton Ray, a professor at the University of Virginia who has studied walruses for 50 years. "That would seem like it's all right, but it's not because they get in these huge herds and if they are disturbed in some way, they tend to rush into the sea, and they trample a lot of the animals. Some calves get killed."

It's also much harder for walruses to feed themselves on land. Most of their food sources are in the water.

Two years ago, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Interior Department to put the walrus on the endangered species list. Shaye Wolf, the group's climate science director, is considering suing the department to make it move more quickly.

"Delaying protection for the walrus means that we increase the chances of losing the walrus forever," she says.

Nobody seems to like the decision.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) says it stands to hurt native Alaskans who hunt walruses. It could limit tourism, which is important for the state's economy, and it could jeopardize plans to explore for oil in the Chukchi Sea.

"It adds to the delay, it adds to the cost and it limits development," Murkowski says.

The Interior department says it will keep close tabs on walruses and will review its decision every year. Meanwhile, walruses are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Shogren is an NPR News Science Desk correspondent focused on covering environment and energy issues and news.