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Federal agencies, Point Lay seek to minimize walrus disturbances

  • Author: Kamala Kelkar
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 22, 2015

Federal agencies are stepping in to shield a North Slope village from the possibility of a deluge of international attention should a large walrus haulout develop nearby, as it has in years past -- agreeing to act as an information clearinghouse on behalf of the Native Village of Point Lay.

The village has also taken its own steps to reduce the impact of international attention and its own activities on the marine mammals.

About 35,000 walruses swarmed the coast of Point Lay toward the end of summer last year, likely because the ice they usually use for rest had melted, scientists said. The event drew international visitors, mostly media, to the village of 189 residents.

Officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service know the extra attention -- especially boats and planes trying to get close -- will not only disrupt the village again, but could also cause a lethal stampede.

"We're trying to get the word out that this kind of interest and visitation isn't in the best interest of the animals," said Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros.

In addition to figuring out how Fish and Wildlife can provide video footage and pictures at a central site for the press, it is also working with the Federal Aviation Administration to potentially regulate air traffic in the area. There are some technical hurdles, Medeiros said, such as the inability to provide a live feed, but the goal is to get information out to the public as safely as possible.

"Our hope is that we can provide footage that meets their needs. I think our objectives and, I hope, their objectives would be the same," she said.

Walruses have been beaching on Alaska's coasts en masse since at least 2007, but the haulouts only attracted international attention last year. While those haulouts make for sensational images, they also pose risks to the animals, which weigh thousands of pounds and are easily spooked.

In 2009, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist found 131 carcasses, mostly of young walruses, on the shore of Alaska's Icy Cape. Necropsies revealed they were victims of a stampede.

Last year, federal officials found about 60 carcasses at Point Lay -- though they could not determine whether human actions might have contributed to the deaths.

In hopes of preventing more such deaths and respecting local residents, Medeiros said Fish and Wildlife is asking media to go through the agency or other federal agencies such as USGS, instead of contacting village residents.

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