Could walruses end up on the Endangered Species list?

Researchers are preparing a report that could determine whether walruses are listed as an endangered species.
The process to conduct a “species status assessment” and evaluate the future trends of the walrus population began this fall and will be completed later this year.
“This is a document that is meant to inform a decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service whether or not to list walrus under the Endangered Species Act,” said Joel Garlich-Miller, a biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Marine Mammal Management.
That initial decision won’t be made until August 2025.
The news prompted great interest among the region’s subsistence users of walrus, as demonstrated by the high turnout at a recent Strait Science lecture on the topic.
During the talk, Garlich-Miller and another biologist, Dan Bjornlie, explained how they would put together their assessment and fielded questions from the audience.
Their new study only concerns the stock of Pacific walruses that range across the shallow continental shelf waters in the Bering Chukchi seas, Garlich-Miller said. That stock consists of about 260,000 animals, according to the most recent population estimate gathered during research cruises between 2013 and 2017.
“This estimate is large relative to historical estimates, and the best information suggests that the population is relatively stable at the present time,” Garlich-Miller said.
But now the Fish and Wildlife Service has an obligation to conduct an updated status assessment due to recent litigation.
The Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group known for its Endangered Species Act litigations, had first petitioned for Pacific walruses to gain federal protections in 2008.
In response, the Fish and Wildlife Service had named the walrus a candidate species for an Endangered Species Act listing, but the agency reversed course and determined in 2017 that their status did not warrant for a listing.
The Center for Biological Diversity sued the agency arguing that it didn’t adequately explain why it made this change. A judge ruled in the center’s favor in 2021.
Bjornlie explained that the Fish and Wildlife Service is now conducting another walrus research cruise program similar to the one that was done from 2013 through 2017. But this series of cruises will take place over three summers instead of five, and now the researchers’ goal is to get a better idea of the species’ population trends.
“We don’t know if this population is increasing or decreasing,” Bjornlie said. “We can’t really say based on just one number.”
The first cruise took place in the summer of 2023, and two more are planned for June 2024 and 2025. However, those new results won’t be finished before the species assessment has to be completed. So instead, the researchers are relying on other available data, Indigenous knowledge and scientific models to predict the status and outlook for walruses in the face of new threats like shrinking sea ice and harmful algal blooms that have uncertain effects.
One of the big questions looming over the presentation was how would an Endangered Species listing affect subsistence uses of walruses?
“We don’t have jobs, the State of Alaska has dropped the ball, we are more and more on food shortages,” said a caller from St. Lawrence Island. “If [walruses] are going to be placed on the endangered list and affect our harvest and no changes are made for different ways of getting food to our people, our people are going to starve.
Garlich-Miller said: “Hypothetically, if walruses were to be listed, first of all, it’s important to point out that subsistence hunting is something that is permissible under the Endangered Species Act. So there wouldn’t necessarily be any sort of legal pressure to halt walrus hunting.”
He gave the example of polar bears, which are listed as threatened but allowed to be hunted for subsistence. He also acknowledged that under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, there are some mechanisms by which restrictions could kick in if a population becomes grossly depleted and harvest levels appear to be unsustainable. But he called those provisions “extreme hypotheticals,” and said walrus harvest at this point has been “completely sustainable.”
Garlich-Miller and Bjornlie said that they will gather information from both Western science and Indigenous knowledge in their report. But another audience member asked if Indigenous knowledge would be weighted equally with published scientific work by the high-level group of decision-makers who will ultimately make the call about whether an ESA listing is warranted.
Garlich-Miller said they were encouraged by those high-level figures in the agency to “seek Indigenous knowledge to help get a well-rounded report,” and that this information would be treated “peer-to-peer with Western science.” He described their “goal” and “challenge” as species status assessment writers to present that information.
He said the Strait Science lecture was part of their outreach. They also have a call out to tribes for government-to-government consultation regarding the report. Last year they held a workshop in Nome hosted by the Eskimo Walrus Commission, where walrus experts from St. Lawrence Island and Nome shared information. Garlich-Miller added that those Indigenous experts helped them fill some data gaps for their population model.
During the lecture, Orville Toolie in Savoonga offered a live report of nearby walruses and offered to arrange for sample collection: “We’ve got wide open water out there, and there are big herds out there and they are feeding.”
Vera Metcalf, director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, said: “I really appreciate that information that Orville shared, because that’s firsthand visual knowledge that these hunters have. I believe if folks can also take pictures or document these kinds of information that will be wonderful.”
 

 

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