Crime & Courts

Investigation continues into Northwest Alaska walrus deaths

Five months after 25 Pacific walrus were found dead on a remote Northwest Alaska beach, including some that were missing heads and tusks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says its investigation into the incident is ongoing.

"We expect that sometime in the next couple of months we will have information to share," spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros said in an email response to questions.

The carcasses were photographed by a person connected to an Air Force radar station at Cape Lisburne, about 230 miles northeast of the Bering Strait. The person notified the agency of the carcasses on the rocky Chukchi Sea beach in mid-September.

Twelve pups were among the dead animals. The cause of death was not immediately determined, agency officials said at the time, and a cause has not been released.

Agency officials in September said missing heads and tusks did not automatically indicate illegal activity and that the animals could have died in the ocean and washed ashore.

Only Alaska Natives who live in the state may hunt walrus for subsistence or for the creation of handicrafts or clothing. Walrus killed only for ivory is considered wasteful, and head-hunting is illegal.

Federal regulations allow anyone to collect bones, teeth and ivory of dead marine mammals found on beaches or land within a quarter-mile of the ocean, though they must follow certain rules.

Walrus use sea ice as a moving platform from which to dive to the ocean floor for clams, sea snails and other food. Many walrus found in the Chukchi Sea are females with pups that can rest on ice as the adults forage.

With climate warming, sea ice in recent years has receded far beyond the shallow continental shelf in late summer. Walrus can stay on sea ice over waters where it's too deep to dive or they can swim to shore.

An estimated 35,000 Pacific walrus were photographed Sept. 2 near Point Lay, about 100 miles northeast of Cape Lisburne. Grouped shoulder-to-shoulder, they are subject to stampedes if startled by an airplane, hunter or polar bear.