The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released reports documenting the status of polar bears and Pacific walrus in Alaska. The reports confirm that polar bears in Alaska are declining and that Pacific walrus are under threat. Both species are imperiled due to the loss of their sea-ice habitat due to global warming, oil and gas development, and unsustainable harvest.
"Polar bears and walrus are under severe threat, and unless we act rapidly to reduce greenhouse pollution and protect their habitat from oil development, we stand to lose both of these icons of the Arctic," said Brendan Cumming, oceans program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The reports, issued pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, summarize information on population abundance and trends of polar bears and walrus, threats to the species, and include calculations of human-caused mortality and whether that mortality is sustainable.
There are two polar bear populations in Alaska: a Southern Beaufort Sea stock, which is shared with Canada, and a Chukchi/Bering Sea stock which is shared with Russia. The Pacific walrus occurs in the Bering and Chukchi seas and is shared with Russia.
For the Southern Beaufort Sea polar bear stock, the Fish and Wildlife Service estimated a minimum population of 1,397 bears and an annual human-caused mortality of 54 animals, well above the calculated sustainable rate of 22 animals per year. The stock assessment states that "the Southern Beaufort Sea population is now declining."
For the Chukchi/Bering Sea polar bear stock, the Service estimated a minimum population of 2,000 bears and an annual human-caused mortality of 37 animals from Alaska and between 150-250 bears killed per year in Russia. The calculated sustainable rate of harvest is 30 animals per year. The stock assessment states that "the population is believed to be declining" and is "reduced based on harvest levels that were demonstrated to be unsustainable."
For the Pacific walrus, the Service estimated a minimum population of 15,164 animals and an annual human-caused mortality of between 4,963 and 5,460 animals. The calculated sustainable rate of harvest is 607 animals per year.
Of the three population estimates, only the estimate for the well-studied Beaufort Sea polar bears is considered reliable. The Chukchi/Bering Sea polar bear population is based on incomplete data and could be an overestimate, while the walrus estimate is an underestimate as it only represents surveys in about half of the walrus habitat and does not account for walrus not counted because they were in the water rather than hauled out on ice.
"These reports publicly confirm what scientists have known for several years: Polar bear and walrus populations in Alaska are in trouble," added Cummings. "And even if the population numbers are not precise, we know that without their sea-ice habitat they are likely doomed."
The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires that the secretary of the interior and the secretary of commerce prepare stock assessments for marine mammals. The assessments are meant to be used as the basis for management decisions such as permitting the killing or harassment of the animals from commercial fisheries, oil and gas exploration, boating and shipping, and military exercises.
To ensure that decision-makers have the most accurate information, stock assessments are supposed to be revised every year for endangered 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 sued the Wildlife Service and obtained a court order requiring the release of updated reports. Stock assessments for the Florida manatee were released last week, while 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 for Biological Diversity. The Fish and Wildlife Service is under court order to make a finding on the Center's petition to protect the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act by September 10, 2009.
A copy of the stock assessments released June 18 can be found at http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/mmm/reports.htm