The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating whether a photographer who posted aerial photographs of a large haulout of walruses near Point Lay violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Most summers since 2007, walruses have hauled out on beaches along Alaska's Arctic coastline, likely because the summer sea ice in the Chukchi Sea that they used to inhabit has melted too far north.
Their haulouts are usually largest at Point Lay; last year some 35,000 animals gathered near the North Slope village -- one of the biggest such onshore gatherings in the region.
But as numbers have grown, so has unwanted attention. The village there of 189 people was overwhelmed with media last year. Local residents and federal officials are also worried that when people in planes and boats try to get close to these large mammals, it could spook them and cause devastating stampedes.
With the well-being of residents and animals in mind, several agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Native village of Point Lay, recently sent out a statement asking media and others interested in the walruses to contact the agencies before attempting to contact villagers or visiting Point Lay.
Still, aerial shots from this summer's haulout started circulating this week. Gary Braasch, a longtime environmental photographer, took the photographs Sunday and posted them on a site devoted to documenting climate change.
Braasch said he took precautions, including flying in a small aircraft, and at a distance, "so as not to disturb the herd."
"I used a very long telephoto lens," Braasch said. "My pilot says we were at least a mile away."
But a U.S. Fish and Wildlife official said that though he did not know details about Braasch's flight, he was worried when he saw the images.
"If you look at the photograph where they're closer to the herd, you can see the animals have their heads up. They're looking at the plane and the photographer," said James MacCracken, a supervisory wildlife biologist for Fish and Wildlife who specializes in walruses. "That's exactly the kind of thing that we don't want to have happen."
MacCracken said that if people do end up disturbing them, it could violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
"It's against the law to harass mammals," MacCracken said. "And harassment is defined very broadly to include any change in behavior."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros later confirmed that the agency is investigating the incident.
It's more than just a minor disturbance to the animals that federal officials worry about.
Last year, locals who monitor the walruses for Fish and Wildlife said they found about 60 carcasses that could have been the result of a stampede.
In 2009, U.S. Geological Survey scientists found 131 carcasses, mostly young walruses, after a stampede on the shores of Icy Cape, north of Point Lay.
There is no evidence that their deaths were caused by humans, but the numbers show the potential for casualties when walruses concentrate in such numbers.