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Pacific Walrus to be Designated a Candidate for Endangered Species Protection

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) has determined that the
Pacific walrus warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA),
but an official rulemaking to propose that protection is currently
precluded by the need to address other higher priority species. As a
result, the walrus will be added to the agency's list of candidates for ESA
protection and its future status will be reviewed annually.

The Service's determination – also known as a 12-month finding – that
sufficient scientific and commercial data exist to warrant protecting the
Pacific walrus under the ESA was made after a comprehensive review of the
best available scientific information concerning the walrus and the threats
it faces. This review found that the walrus is primarily threatened by the
loss of sea ice in its arctic habitat due to climate change.

“The threats to the walrus are very real, as evidenced by this ‘warranted’
finding,” said Geoff Haskett, the Service’s Director of the Alaska Region.
“But its greater population numbers and ability to adapt to land-based
haulouts make its immediate situation less dire than those facing other
species such as the polar bear. If we work with Alaska Native groups, the
State of Alaska and other partners to help the walrus now, we may be able
to lessen the long-term impacts of climate change on these animals and keep
them from becoming endangered.”

While candidate species do not receive protection under the ESA, Pacific
walrus in the U.S. are currently protected by the Marine Mammal Protection
Act (MMPA) of 1972. Protections afforded under the MMPA are similar to
those under the Endangered Species Act and include prohibitions on the
harvest, import, export, and interstate commerce of the Pacific walrus or
walrus products.
The Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) is found throughout the
continental shelf waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas and occasionally in
the East Siberian Sea and the Beaufort Sea. Pacific walrus use floating sea
ice as a substrate for birthing and nursing calves, resting, isolation from
predators and for passive transport to new feeding areas. The Service has
concluded that loss of sea ice – with the resulting changes to walrus
distribution and life history patterns this loss entails – will lead to a
population decline and is a threat to Pacific walrus in the foreseeable
future.

While dependent on sea ice, Pacific walrus have shown an ability to use
land-based haulouts when sea ice is unavailable, and to use those haulouts
to rest between feeding periods offshore. Over time, walrus will be forced
to rely on terrestrial haulouts to a greater extent. This will expose all
individuals, but especially calves, juveniles, and females, to increased
levels of stress from depletion of prey, increased energetic costs to
obtain prey, trampling injuries and mortalities, and predation. While
current subsistence harvest of Pacific walrus by Alaska natives is believed
to be sustainable, if sea ice loss occurs as expected, the current level of
subsistence harvest will become a threat in the forseeable future.

The precise current size and current trends in the number of the Pacific
walrus is unknown. The last joint U.S./Russian survey was conducted in 2006
using thermal imaging systems and satellite transmitters. The number of
Pacific walrus within the surveyed area was estimated at 129,000. This is
considered a minimum estimate, since weather conditions forced an early end
to the survey and not much of the southwest Bering Sea was completed.

The Service will review the Pacific walrus' status as a candidate species
annually, and develop a proposed rule to protect the species under the ESA
as priorities allow. Any future proposal to add the Pacific walrus to the
federal list of threatened and endangered species will be subject to public
review and comment.

On February 8, 2008, the Service received a petition dated February 7,
2008, from the Center for Biological Diversity to list the Pacific walrus
as threatened or endangered under the ESA and to designate critical
habitat. On September 10, 2009, the Service published a 90-day finding
stating that substantial scientific or commercial information indicated
that the petitioned action may be warranted due to effects on walrus
resulting from changes in climate and sea-ice habitats. Today’s publication
constitutes the 12-month finding on the February 7, 2008, petition to list
the Pacific walrus as endangered or threatened.

The 12-month finding and other background information is available on the
internet at http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/mmm/walrus/esa.htm or by
contacting the Service’s Anchorage Regional Office at 907-786-3800 or
800-362-5148.

America's fish, wildlife and plant resources belong to all of us, and
ensuring the health of imperiled species is a shared responsibility. We're
working to actively engage conservation partners and the public in the
search for improved and innovative ways to conserve and recover imperiled
species. To learn more about the Endangered Species program, go to
http://www.fws.gov/endangered/.

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to
conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for
the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and
trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific
excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated
professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our
work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.

-FWS-

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