The Fish and Wildlife Service (“Service”) is facing a court-ordered January 31 deadline to decide whether to propose recommending the Pacific walrus for the endangered species list under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). Earlier this month, the federal Marine Mammal Commission (“Commission”) issued a letter (PDF) to the Service recommending that it list the species as threatened. The Commission, which oversees marine mammal conservation policies carried out by federal regulatory agencies, cited loss of sea ice habitat as the most significant threat to the species’ population: “Without question, the warming of the Arctic is destroying, modifying, and curtailing walrus habitat and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.” The Commission explained that the walrus relies on sea ice for foraging and giving birth. Further, the loss of sea ice will likely change the physical characteristics of the marine ecosystem in ways that may be detrimental to walruses. For example, Commission Vera Alexander, quoted in the Juneau Empire, states that without their ice platform, walrus cannot reach the best foraging areas; “[t]he nearshore assemlage of oragnisms is not useful for them.” The species may also be subject to possible secondary threats including diseases, parasites, and predation. Meanwhile, the only significant direct take of walruses by humans is for subsistence purposes.  According to the Commission, current harvest levels may not be sustainable.  Finally, the Commission stated that environmental changes occurring in the Arctic are opening the region to an increase in human activity, such as oil and gas development, increased commercial shipping, and tourism that may lead to an additional and significant impact on walruses. The Commission concluded that the current regulatory regime is not sufficient to deal with the range of significant threats facing the population now and in the foreseeable future.

The possible listing recommendation comes as the result of a February 2008 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity to list the walrus as threatened or endangered.