Pacific Walrus For Endangered Species Protection

The Pacific walrus warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act, but an official rulemaking to propose that protection is currently precluded by the need to address other higher priority species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined Tuesday.

As a result, the Pacific walrus, Odobenus rosmarus divergens, will be added to the agency's list of candidates for Endangered Species Act protection and its future status will be reviewed annually. Any future proposal to add the Pacific walrus to the federal list of threatened and endangered species will be subject to public review and comment.

The Service's determination, known as a 12-month finding, found that the walrus is primarily threatened by the loss of sea ice in its arctic habitat due to climate change.

"The threats to the walrus are very real, as evidenced by this 'warranted' finding," said Geoff Haskett, the Service's director of the Alaska Region. "But its greater population numbers and ability to adapt to land-based haulouts make its immediate situation less dire than those facing other species such as the polar bear."

"If we work with native Alaskan groups, the State of Alaska and other partners to help the walrus now," said Haskett, "we may be able to lessen the long-term impacts of climate change on these animals and keep them from becoming endangered."

While candidate species do not receive protection under the Endangered Species Act, Pacific walrus in the United States are currently protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Haskett said these protections are similar to those under the Endangered Species Act and include prohibitions on the harvest, import, export, and interstate commerce of the Pacific walrus or walrus products.

But the Center for Biological Diversity is not persuaded that these protections are sufficient to save the walrus from extinction. The nonprofit organization petitioned the Service in February 2008 to list the Pacific walrus as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act and to designate critical habitat for the animals.

"The Obama administration has acknowledged that the walrus is facing extinction due to climate change, yet is withholding the very protections that can help save it," said Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "It's like having a doctor declare that you are in critical condition, but then just leaving you unattended in the hospital's waiting room."

Wolf points out that the Service's decision goes against the recommendation of the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent federal scientific advisory body, which endorsed listing the Pacific walrus as a threatened species.

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