Two of the Arctic’s most iconic animals face challenges with retreating sea ice. The Bush administration listed the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act in 2008.
But recently, the Pacific walrus was denied the same protections under President Trump. Critics have called it a political decision.
But the real story is likely a lot more complicated.
Nine years ago, a conservation group petitioned the federal government to put the Pacific walrus on the Endangered Species list. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decided the listing was warranted.
But the decision got stuck in limbo because there was a huge backlog of other listings.
“Personally back in 2008, I was very happy that the decision could be delayed for a while,” Rosa Meehan said.
Meehan is retired now. But when the Pacific walrus was first up for review, she managed the marine mammal program at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. She says scientists knew polar bears living in the Arctic were threatened by changing conditions.
“Walrus, there was concern. But it was not as immediate,” Meehan said.
Female walrus spend their summers in the Arctic Ocean, giving birth and feeding their pups. They rest on sea ice and then dive to the ocean floor to feast on clams.
But as sea ice has retreated earlier in the summer, more females and their young have been forced on shore. It’s become a regular occurrence to see thousands onshore in Alaska and Russia.
“Having that many animals hanging out on a land haulout- it’s was like, ‘Whoa, that’s kind of a lot,’” Meehan said. “You just don’t know what they would do. So there’s a question there.”
And Meehan says scientists were unsure how to answer that question back in 2008. There were concerns about stampedes, and they didn’t know how far walrus could swim for food.
With good sea ice, it’s as if walrus have a grocery store right in their neighborhood. When they’re hauled out on land, though, they have to swim a long way for food.
Chad Jay, a walrus biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, has tracked walrus on epic journeys to visit their favorite feeding spot — a place called Hannah Shoal.
“They’re essentially then not able to haulout for 250 miles of travel,” Jay said.
Jay has worked on walrus studies for the past 20 years. During that time, he says there have been some major changes in the Arctic.
“Sea ice has been declining for the last couple decades,” Jay said. “And we’ve seen that firsthand in our field studies, and it’s been pretty dramatic.”
So if polar bears and walrus both use sea ice to feed, retreating sea ice should be equally hard for both species, right?
Rosa Meehan says, ‘no.’
“The difference is the polar bears have to walk on the ice to catch the seals that they eat,” Meehan said.
Without the platform of ice to catch seals, Meehan says polar bears don’t have access to an equivalent food source on land, and there’s competition from brown bears for what is available.
So while polars bears and walrus are both experiencing the effects of climate change, Meehan says walrus are faring a lot better.
“So far, they seem to be doing OK,” Meehan said.
Biologist Chad Jay, though, said it remains to seen if walrus can handle all of the changes headed their way.
Besides the long swims for food, he says there are other stressors to consider, like where walrus will give birth as sea ice retreats.
There’s also the potential for increased vessel traffic in the Arctic.
“So I wouldn’t say they’re out of the woods yet,” Jay said.
Back when Rosa Meehan was still with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, she said climate change was very much a part of the conversation. But the recent decision not to list walrus doesn’t mention it as a threat. It only acknowledges “environmental change.”
Still, Meehan doesn’t think the decision was political.
“I’m confident that the people looking at the science are looking at the actual mechanisms of what’s going on with change,” Meehan said. “It’s just getting wrapped in a different set of words.”
Meehan hopes that different set of words doesn’t impact research funding. She says there’s still a lot to learn to make sure walrus have a future in the Arctic.