In early October, the US Fish & Wildlife Service reversed its 2011 decision to list Pacific walrus as ‘threatened with extinction’, saying they could not “determine with certainty that walruses are likely to become endangered “in the foreseeable future.” [details below]
I have argued that the 2008 decision by the USFWS to list polar bears as ‘threatened’ is similarly lacking in certainty (Crockford 2017) and as for walrus, the previous determination of ‘threatened’ for polar bears was premature and should be reversed.
A prominent biology colleague and I recently put it this way in a newly published essay:
“Is it ethical or fair to the many citizens impacted directly and indirectly by the 2008 polar bear ruling for the FWS to allow polar bears to remain on the Endangered Species List?”
Read our piece in the winter 2018 issue of RANGE Magazine (open access), authored by myself and Dr. Valerius Geist, professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary, Alberta.
Crockford, S.J. and Geist, V. 2018. Conservation Fiasco. Range Magazine, Winter 2017/2018, pg. 26-27. Pdf here.
PS. You’ll find an excellent piece on wildfires by biologist Jim Steele in the same issue.
See also Crockford, S.J. 2017. Testing the hypothesis that routine sea ice coverage of 3-5 mkm2 results in a greater than 30% decline in population size of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). PeerJ Preprints 2 March 2017. Doi: 10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3 Open access. https://doi.org/10.7287/peerj.preprints.2737v3
Details on the USFWS decision on the walrus is below. Note that like the walrus, if ESA protection on the polar bear was reversed, the bears would still be strongly protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (as they have been since 1972), and like the walrus, polar bears have shown an ability to adapt that was not foreseen in 2007 (as evidenced by their failure to die off droves in response to recent sea ice declines).
US Fish and Wildlife Service Press Release (4 October 2017), my bold:
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has found that the Pacific walrus does not require protection as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The finding follows a comprehensive review and analysis of the best available scientific information concerning the species, as well as local and traditional ecological knowledge of Alaska Native peoples.
The Pacific walrus is found throughout the continental shelf waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas and occasionally in the East Siberian Sea and Beaufort Sea. In its review, the Service paid particular attention to the impact to the species of the ongoing loss of sea ice in the walrus’s range.
While walruses use sea ice for a variety of activities, including breeding, birthing, resting and avoiding predators, they have shown an ability to adapt to sea ice loss that was not foreseen when the Service last assessed the species in 2011.
Given these behavioral changes, the Service determined that it could not predict, with confidence, future behavioral responses of the species beyond 2060. Accordingly, that date was used as the limit for determining whether the walrus was likely to become endangered within the “foreseeable future,” under the ESA. Beyond that time, predicting behavioral responses becomes too speculative to be considered best available science for the purposes of a listing determination.
“Our decision not to list the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act at this time is based on a rigorous evaluation of the best available science, which indicates the population appears stable, and the species has demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing conditions,” said Fish and Wildlife Service Principal Deputy Director Greg Sheehan. “If future circumstances warrant or new information comes to light, we can and will re-evaluate the Pacific walrus for ESA protection. In the meantime, the species will continue to be federally protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
Other stressors that were identified in 2011, including subsistence harvest, have declined. The Pacific walrus population appears to be approaching stability with reproductive and survival rates that are higher than in the 1970s–1980s.
The Pacific walrus will continue to receive protection in the U.S. under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Protections afforded under the MMPA include prohibitions on the harvest, import, and export of the Pacific walrus or walrus products, except by Alaska Natives for subsistence and handicraft creation and sale. In addition to monitoring the population, the Service will continue to work with the State of Alaska, coastal communities and other partners to conserve the Pacific walrus population and minimize the impacts of stressors where possible.
The decision today is the Service’s final action regarding a petition submitted to the agency in 2008 to list the Pacific walrus.”
Federal Register announcement (USFWS; 4 October 2017), search for “walrus”
USFWS Species Assessment Report for the Pacific Walrus (final), May 2017 [pdf, MacCracken et al. 2017]