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Headless walruses wash ashore in Northwest Alaska; foul play not suspected

Suzanna Caldwell
Over a dozen walrus carcasses have washed ashore in Northwest Alaska over the last week between Kivalina and Point Hope, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it has no cause for concern. USGS photo

Over a dozen headless walrus carcasses washed ashore along dozens of miles of coastline in northwest Alaska last week. While the number of walruses is a bit surprising, the fact that they are lying out there -- and without their heads -- is not.

“That number is certainly not excessive, but it's a lot to hear about all at one time,” said Jim MacCracken, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service walrus program supervisor.

According to the federal agency, between 15 and 19 walruses washed ashore in the 70 miles between Kivalina and Point Hope, two Iñupiat villages located on the Lisburne Peninsula in Northwest Alaska and reported to Fish and Wildlife last week.

Agency spokesman Larry Bell said since the carcasses had been at sea for an extended period of time, it was impossible determine whether their deaths were a result of hunting or natural causes. Bell said unless evidence of wrongdoing emerges, the wildlife service is not investigating the carcasses.

“If we're able to determine any other causes of death or take in an illegal manner, we'll investigate,” he said. “But at this point we don't have any other information to go on.”

Each year, walrus carcasses wash ashore in the region, though when and in what quantities is always a question, MacCracken said. While there is not walrus hunting season, per se, MacCracken said most of the hunting in Northwest Alaska occurs in the spring. Some of the carcasses could have come from animals shot this spring that sunk before hunters could get to them. He said there was no way to know exactly where the walruses came from.

“They could have come from just about anywhere,” he said.

Bell said Tuesday that no living walruses have been spotted between Kivalina and Point Hope recently.

According to MacCracken, the fact that the carcasses have been decapitated isn't surprising. While there are strict rules over who can hunt walrus (Alaska Natives only), anyone can collect a head -- which may include valuable ivory tusks -- once the large marine mammals wash ashore.

MacCracken said because of the advanced state of decomposition, it was impossible to tell whether the heads were removed before or after the animals washed ashore. It would be illegal for a hunter to remove just the heads and not salvage the rest of the animal.

Two men from Togiak, in Southwestern Alaska, were arraigned last year for illegally killing several walruses for only the tusks, a violation of the federal Lacey Act and Marine Mammals Protection Act. Sixty M. Arkanakyak, 49, was found guilty in June and sentenced to 30 months in jail and three years supervised release. The other man's case remains pending.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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