About three dozen young walruses were found dead last week on the beach near Point Lay, but they do not appear to have died as a result of foul play, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Thursday.
A researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey found the bodies while conducting unrelated walrus research and took photos, said Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros. She said she did not know the exact date the walrus carcasses were discovered.
Medeiros said based on the images an estimated 37 were found dead. The bodies appear to be intact.
The service is in the process of analyzing the photos to determine how long the carcasses had been on the beach, as well as the age class of the animals.
"We haven't had a chance to go out there and confirm whether they're from this year or last year or identify the cause of death," said James MacCracken, a supervisory biologist and walrus specialist at the FWS.
Local monitors from the village of Point Lay are expected to go to the site to collect more information about the dead walruses, MacCracken said.
Walruses in that part of the Chukchi during this time of the year are exclusively adult females and their calves. When floating ice is present, they use it for resting and nursing in between dives to the seafloor to forage for clams, worms and other food.
But since 2007, absence of sea ice in summer and fall has forced thousands of walruses to the Point Lay shoreline haulout.
Crowds of walruses on the shore create dangers for the youngest of the animals. They can be crushed to death if the herd stampedes; disturbances from predators, people, aircraft and boat traffic can trigger stampedes.
Last year, about 60 young animals at the Point Lay haulout were killed in such a manner, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
The onshore haulouts are far from the walruses' prime foraging grounds over the Chukchi continental shelf, possibly causing hardships for the animals, especially pregnant and lactating females with bodies that have high energy demands.
As of last week, the Point Lay area haulout was estimated to include 10,000 walruses, Medeiros said.
Tens of thousands of walruses have crowded the beach area almost every year since 2007, the agency said. About 10,000 walruses were believed to be at the Point Lay haulout last week, Medeiros said.
The agency is investigating the deaths of 25 walruses in another Arctic coastal area, Cape Lisburne, that appear to have been killed for their ivory. Those animals had been shot and their heads removed, it said.
Yereth Rosen contributed to this report.