There goes the walrus goo goo ga joob

Right now, Pacific walruses are being threatened by a loss of habitat due to sea ice melting, a factor that clearly qualifies it to be listed as an endangered species; so why was it declined?(Joel Garlich Miller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Last month, the Trump administration refused to list the Pacific walrus on the endangered species list, an action that sentenced them to extinction. Along with a list of two dozen other species, the walrus was deemed unworthy of a coveted spot on the list and therefore does not receive help from Federal conservation efforts. Animals listed on endangered species are threatened because of habitat destruction or modification, disease or predation, or other manmade factors affecting its survival. Right now, Pacific walruses are being threatened by a loss of habitat due to sea ice melting, a factor that clearly qualifies it to be listed as an endangered species; so why was it declined?

The Pacific walrus depends heavily on sea ice for feeding, breeding and nursing their young. Ice floes are used to find mates in the winter and to give birth during the spring. Walruses are unable to swim continuously, so sea ice provides them with safe havens near their foraging grounds to rest on in between dives to the seafloor to feed on clams and mussels. These resting platforms are especially crucial for nursing calves who wait on them while their mothers retrieve food before they are able to swim.

In recent years, global warming has been swiftly melting sea ice over the Pacific walruses foraging grounds in the Chukchi sea. As a result, mothers and calves have been forced to the shore in between feeding periods, a long journey during which young calves can drown from exhaustion. While on land, Walruses are more exposed to predators and human activity, which often spooks them and results in stampedes. Amongst the mayhem, many young are often trampled, just earlier this year 64 walruses were reported dead on a beach in Alaska from a stampede.

Many people agree with this decision to exclude the Pacific walrus from the endangered species list, claiming this behavior to rest on shorelines when sea ice is unavailable shows that they are highly adaptable to habitat loss. It seems as though they are ignoring the many problems that these new resting grounds present for young calves. If the offsprings of the Walrus are put in danger and dying because of drowning, stampedes and increased predation then how do we expect their population, to be “robust and healthy” in the future? 

It is clear that even with their ability to change their behavior and find new resting grounds, the walrus is not adapted to life on the shore. They are ill suited to interacting with humans and predators on land, being used to their quiet, isolated ice floes. If the Pacific walrus is forced to rest on the shore, then we need conservation efforts to ensure that they will not be alarmed or threatened in order to protect their population, most importantly their young. If portions of beaches were roped off to ensure that there were no human interactions this might lessen the number of stampedes and help to stabilize their population.

The refusal to list the Pacific walrus as an endangered species is just another way in which the Trump administration dismissing the severity of climate change is having negative effects on our world. This year the sea ice minimum was 610,000 square miles below the average, making it the eighth lowest year in satellite record. 

Data like this has led scientists to predict that by the summer of 2030, the Arctic will be devoid of sea ice, a staggering prognosis with dire consequences for the Pacific walrus. It is this research into the effects of climate change that the Trump administration has been accused of obstructing. Recently, Congress has added fuel to these accusations through ordering the destruction of one of the only three sea ice probes monitoring the coverage of ice at the poles. This just shows how little value is being put on this kind of research and the purposeful ignorance and denial of climate change which will be the downfall of many species, including the Pacific walrus.


Samantha Pierce is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at samantha.pierce@uconn.edu.