Blubbery, clam-loving Pacific walruses are surprisingly resilient to the dramatic loss of polar sea ice as the planet warms and won't be listed as an endangered species, the federal government announced early Wednesday.
The decision is controversial. A scientist for a group that works to protect endangered animals called it a Trump administration "death sentence for the walrus." But Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, the state's all-Republican congressional delegation, Native hunters, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the state Department of Fish and Game all said it was the right call.
"This decision will allow for the continued responsible harvest of Pacific walrus for subsistence and traditional uses by Alaska Natives," Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a written statement.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 began evaluating whether to provide extra protection to walruses under the Endangered Species Act, after the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the government.
Years of court review and study culminated in the announcement.
The decision reverses a finding in 2011 that declaring the animals endangered or threatened was warranted. No final action was taken then because a backlog of cases pushed walruses to near the bottom of the Fish and Wildlife Service's priority list. Instead, the animal was considered a "candidate" for extra protection.
Walruses, as it turned out, appear to be doing better than government scientists expected.
"There is a lot of new information that came out since the finding in 2011 that demonstrated the walruses' ability to change their behavior and use land-based haulouts," said Patrick Lemons, the chief of marine mammals management for Fish and Wildlife Service's Alaska region.
Sea ice in the Chukchi and Bering seas now rapidly diminishes in summer, taking away a platform that walruses use to rest between dives to forage for clams, worms and other sea-floor foods in shallow waters. Females give birth on the ice. Calves are better protected from predators there.
During the summer ice melt, female walruses and their young now haul out by the tens of thousands at Point Lay on Alaska's Chukchi Sea coast. Radio tagging by the U.S. Geological Survey has shown that they can make long trips to rich feeding grounds offshore such as at Hanna Shoal, something scientists weren't sure of in 2011, Lemons said.
"Radio tagging data clearly demonstrates they are making those offshore foraging trips so they can access those areas," he said. They might travel 130 miles to those feeding grounds, he said.
Male walruses head south in summer to haulouts mainly around Bristol Bay and in Russia.
The determination alarms Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity. She said government scientists are misrepresenting their own studies.
"This disgraceful decision is a death sentence for the walrus," she said.
Large herds need large areas of pack ice to gather on during breeding season and then for migration. But these days polar ice can be more like a mixing bowl of ice floes too small for a herd, the biological center said in its comments to the Fish and Wildlife Service supporting an endangered species listing.
When the sea ice melts, young walruses are vulnerable during long treks to shore, Wolf said. They also are the ones most likely to be killed in stampedes on haulouts, research has shown.
"There is a large and clear body of science and research that shows walruses are suffering from the loss of their sea ice habitat, the habitat that they need for survival," Wolf said. "They are not adapting. They are suffering."
The Obama administration found that walruses were in trouble. Six years later, Wolf said, the climate-change-skeptical Trump administration says they are not.
The same career biologists helped shape both determinations, using the best science of the time, said Fish and Wildlife. Those in Alaska recommended that walruses not be listed as endangered. The final decision was up to the agency head based in Washington, D.C.
While getting a good count of Pacific walruses is challenging, the latest studies estimate a population of around 283,000, though there could be as few as 93,000 to as many as 478,000-plus.
That is dramatically down from the early 1980s, the federal government acknowledges. DNA sampling of individual walruses suggests the number may be stabilizing, Lemons said. The fifth year of field work has just ended in a study that examines whether the same animals appear year after year. So far only two years worth of data has been analyzed.
Alaska Native people are allowed to hunt walruses in unlimited numbers, but even a finding that the animals were endangered likely wouldn't have affected subsistence hunting, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
People who live in two villages on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea hunt walruses in the biggest numbers among Alaskans. The isolated communities rely on the animal as a main food source and its ivory for carvings that provide needed cash.
The loss of sea ice close to shore during summer has made hunting harder and fewer walruses are being taken for subsistence, the government found. Gambell and Savoonga also have put in place their own limits on how many walruses can be taken per boat trip.
In early spring when they are out whaling, hunters from St. Lawrence Island are seeing large numbers of walruses, suggesting a growing population, said Kenneth Kingeekuk, Savoonga's representative on the Eskimo Walrus Commission. He thinks the federal government made the right call.
"We don't hunt them at that time, not until May or the last week of April," he said. "When we are about to go home, we might kill one at the end of the day."
This spring, some hunters traveled almost to Nome — 150 miles away — in aluminum skiffs to try to reach walruses on drifting ice, he said.
People who rely on walrus have been uneasy not knowing what the federal government will do.
"We are pleased, happy and relieved," said Vera Metcalf, director of the walrus commission. Information from the commission and other Alaska Native sources helped inform the decision, Lemons said.
The extent of sea ice changes by season, growing to a maximum each winter and then melting each summer to a minimum.
This spring, Arctic sea ice was at its lowest recorded extent for the winter peak since data collection began in 1979. The amount of sea ice recorded in February was 790,000 square miles less than the average — an area larger than Mexico, according to NASA.
Both walruses and polar bears have been affected by the loss of sea ice. But in contrast to walruses, polar bears have been less able to adapt to life on land because they can't get to their normal fat-rich foods, such as seals. There also are far fewer polar bears than walruses, the Fish and Wildlife Service said in explaining why polar bears were listed as a threatened species in 2008 and walruses were not.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act still covers walruses and prohibits people other than Alaska Natives from hunting them in the United States, the Fish and Wildlife Service said. The agency already monitors haulouts and urges people in planes and boats to stay away.
Extra protections could have come if walruses were designated endangered, Wolf said.
"The Endangered Species Act would have first of all opened up a lot more resources and awareness," she said.
The government would have had to map out a recovery plan with steps to help the animal, she said. Areas could have been designated "critical habitat." Federal agencies that regulate offshore oil exploration would have had to consult with Fish and Wildlife before approving work.
The walruses' adaptability makes predictions beyond 2060 too uncertain, another factor in Wednesday's decision, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
Under a court settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Fish and Wildlife Service had to submit its decision by Sept. 30, which it did, officials said. The decision was announced Wednesday. It will publish Thursday in the Federal Register.
"We don't want the attention to walruses to go away," Lemons said.
The center may contest the decision in court, Wolf said.