Feds: Lack of sea ice changes walrus behavior

Associated Press Modified: November 14, 2012 at 8:33 pm •  Published: November 14, 2012
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Remnant ice kept walrus offshore in 2008, but they returned to shore in late summer 2009, with tragic consequences: more than 130 mostly young walruses were crushed at Icy Cape in a stampede that could have been caused by a polar bear, human hunters or an airplane.

In 2010, upward of 20,000 walrus were counted near Point Lay, an Eskimo village 300 miles southwest of Barrow. In 2011, 5.000 walruses were spotted north of Point Lay and 3,000 more a short distance away.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year added walrus to the "warranted but precluded" list, deciding that the animals need additional protections but could not be listed because other species were a higher priority. A legal settlement requires a decision by 2017.

Researchers, meanwhile, will continue investigating whether walrus gathered on the coast will deplete nearshore food resources, which are typically less bountiful for walrus than offshore areas, or if a toll will be taken on the health of females and calves that have to forage farther for food.

Despite record low ice this year, remnant ice floating off Alaska's northwest allowed walrus to stay offshore. As the climate continues to warm, Jay said, walrus are likely to be back on shore in late summer.

"We expect to see this behavior continue and that period of time when walrus are using coastal haul-outs and are forced to forage in these less-productive waters — we expect that period to continue into the future as we experience more climate warming," he said.