An environmental group intends to sue the federal government over its recent decision not to declare Pacific walruses an endangered species.
The Center for Biological Diversity on Thursday took the first step toward a lawsuit by giving notice to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, as required under federal law.
The decision by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was a complete about-face from a 2011 finding that walruses should be listed as endangered because of the rapid loss of sea ice, senior attorney Kristen Monsell said in the 16-page notice.
She called the decision not to protect walruses under the Endangered Species Act politically motivated. The center says the federal government is twisting the science on threats to walruses due to disappearing sea ice.
Walruses rest and travel on floating ice sheets, but as ice has diminished, females and their young instead haul out on Alaska's northern coast, then swim long distances to feeding grounds. Young ones often are trampled to death on land and mothers are abandoning their young at sea, the center says.
Fish and Wildlife biologists say they have done extensive study of walruses and find them to be surprisingly adaptable to changing ice conditions. In addition, walruses already are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the agency has said.
The center first petitioned the government to protect walruses in 2008. The matter has been in and out of court.
The two sides disagree over whether the walrus population in the Bering and Chukchi seas is stabilizing as sea ice continues to diminish. In the Chukchi Sea, for instance, thick, multiyear ice is almost gone, leaving mainly thin first-year ice that is quick to melt in summer.
If walruses were listed as endangered, that determination would not impact subsistence hunters whose families rely on the massive animals as a main food source, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.