New Federal Studies: Alaskan Polar Bear and Walrus in Trouble

For Immediate Release

Contact: 

Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110

New Federal Studies: Alaskan Polar Bear and Walrus in Trouble

Stock Assessments Indicate Tenuous Future for Arctic Icons

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Today, responding to a court-ordered deadline, the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service finalized long-overdue reports documenting
the status of polar bears and Pacific walrus
in Alaska. The reports confirm that polar bear populations in Alaska
are declining and that Pacific walrus are under threat. Both species
are being hurt by the loss of their sea-ice habitat due to global
warming, oil and gas development, and unsustainable harvest.

“Polar bears and walrus are losing their sea-ice home to global warming
at an alarming rate,” said Rebecca Noblin, in the Anchorage office of
the Center for Biological Diversity. “Unless we act fast to reduce
greenhouse pollution and protect their habitat from oil development, we
stand to lose both of these icons of the Arctic.”

Two polar bear populations occur in Alaska: a southern Beaufort Sea
stock that is shared with Canada and a Chukchi/Bering Sea stock that is
shared with Russia. The Pacific walrus occurs in the Bering and Chukchi
seas and is shared with Russia.

According to the assessment, both the southern Beaufort Sea polar bear
stock, estimated at 1,397 bears, and the Chukchi/Bering Sea polar bear
stock, estimated at 2,000 bears, are declining. The report also found
that the human harvest of both polar bear populations exceeds
sustainable harvest levels. The annual harvest of 54 bears from the
southern Beaufort Sea population exceeds the sustainable harvest level
of 22 bears per year, while the annual harvest from the Bering/Chukchi
Sea population of 37 bears from Alaska and 120 to 250 bears from Russia
greatly exceeds the sustainable harvest level of 30 bears per year.
According to the assessment, the Bering/Chukchi Sea population is
“reduced based on harvest levels that were demonstrated to be
unsustainable.”

For the Pacific
walrus, the Service estimated a minimum population of 129,000 animals.
The annual human-caused mortality of between 4,963 and 5,460 animals
greatly exceeded the sustainable harvest rate of 2,580 animals per year.

Of the three population estimates, only the estimate for the
well-studied southern Beaufort Sea polar bears is considered reliable.
The estimate for the Chukchi/Bering Sea polar bear population is based
on incomplete data and could be an overestimate, while the walrus
number is an underestimate as it only represents surveys in about half
of the walrus habitat and does not account for walrus that were in the
water rather than hauled out on ice during counting. However, despite
the unknowns, the Wildlife Service considers both of Alaska’s polar
bear populations to be in decline.

“The science is in, and it shows that Alaska’s polar bears and walrus
are in big trouble,” added Noblin. “There is no longer any excuse to
delay action to protect these great Arctic mammals. Without their
sea-ice habitat, America’s polar bears and walrus are doomed.”
In
addition to threats caused by global warming, polar bears and walrus
face increased oil drilling and industrialization in their Arctic home.
In the past two months, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has approved
oil-company plans to drill in both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in
2010, both without adequate environmental review.

“If this administration is serious about saving these last great icons
of the North, it must bid farewell to harmful Bush-era drilling plans
for the Arctic,” said Noblin. “A rational approach to polar bear and
walrus conservation does not include turning their habitat into a
polluted industrial zone.”

The Marine
Mammal Protection Act requires that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
and the National Marine Fisheries Service prepare stock assessments for
marine mammals. To ensure that decision-makers have the most accurate
information, stock assessments are supposed to be revised every year
for imperiled marine mammals and every three years for other species.
While the National Marine Fisheries Service — the agency responsible
for whales, dolphins, and seals — has largely complied with this
requirement, the Fish and Wildlife Service, responsible for polar
bears, walrus, sea otters, and manatees, had completely ignored it.

In 2007 the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Wildlife Service
and obtained a court order requiring the release of updated reports.
Stock assessments for the Florida manatee were released today, and sea
otter reports were issued last year.

The polar bear is currently listed as threatened under the Endangered
Species Act as a result of a petition and litigation by the Center. In
September the Wildlife Service found that listing the Pacific walrus
under the Endangered Species Act may be warranted. Pursuant to a
settlement of a Center lawsuit, the Wildlife Service must make a final
decision on whether to list the Pacific walrus by September 10, 2010.
A copy of the stock assessments released today can be found at http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/mmm/stock/stock.htm.

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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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