Tag Archives: polar bear prey

No proof walrus are “struggling from the loss of sea ice” as new Earthjustice lawsuit claims

A new day, a new lawsuit by environmentalists: this time, the species-on-a-pedestal is the same population of Chukchi Sea walrus that generated a news frenzy last month, which apparently still has legs.

Walrus puss_USGS_IMG_4763
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Mass haulouts of female Pacific walrus as a sign of population health

Mass haulouts of female Pacific walrus and their calves in fall don’t happen all the time but they do occur. I recently pointed out (here and here) two instances of such incidents from the 1970s.

I said this provided evidence that the September 2014 incident reported in the media was not “a new phenomenon” for this region, as WWF spokepersons and Alaskan biologists have claimed (reiterated in this PBS interview).

Figure 1. Walrus females and calves hauled out on a beach in Svalbard, photo accompanying an October 6, 2014 news report in “Eye on the Arctic” of the rapidly increasing Atlantic walrus population there. (Photo: Thomas Nilsen/Barents Observer).

Figure 1. Walrus females and calves hauled out on a beach in Svalbard, photo accompanying an October 6, 2014 news report in “Eye on the Arctic” of the rapidly increasing Atlantic walrus population there. (Photo: Thomas Nilsen, Barents Observer).

One aspect of the recent occurrence of a large herd on an Alaskan beach that apparently needs reiterating is that the population of walruses declined rather markedly after a 1970s peak and has rebounded since. This suggests that huge herds of females and calves hauling out on beaches in the fall to feed might only be seen when the population is very large.
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High walrus numbers may explain why females and calves are hauling out in droves

Are the recent mass gatherings of females and calves on the beaches of western Alaska and the Russian Far East a sign that population are again close to the limit the habitat can support, as they were in the 1970s?

At the risk of belabouring the point that lack of sea ice does not seem to be a reasonable explanation for this phenomenon (see my last two posts, here and here, and Andrew Montford’s excellent additions here), I think this is a possibility that needs to be considered.

Walruses at Point Lay Sept 27 2014 NOAA CMDA0007_sm

2014 Point Lay, NOAA photo

Walrus are well protected in the US and Russia, and population numbers have risen again since the 1990s, after significant declines in the early 1900s and again in the 1980s.

A paper from the late 1980s suggests that a return to high population numbers may be a more plausible cause for mass gatherings of females and calves that lead to stampede deaths than does reduced sea ice due to global warming.

Have a look and see what you think. It may not be the only reason but it may be a major contributing factor.

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Bearded seals in Alaska face no serious threat of reduction, let alone extinction, judge rules

Here’s a significant turn of events involving a story I reported on earlier: a US District Court judge ruled on Friday 25 July 2014 that the Bering/Chukchi Sea population of bearded seal (Erignatha barbatus) was improperly given ‘threatened’ species status in 2012. Judge Beistline ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to correct deficiencies in its study of the population.

Bearded seals are important secondary prey species for polar bears in some regions of the Arctic (Thiemann et al. 2008), after ringed seals (which were also listed as ‘threatened’ in 2012).

beardedseal-mspindler-usfws

Among other points made in his written decision, the judge is quoted as saying (reported here):

“A listing under the ESA based upon speculation, that provides no additional action intended to preserve the continued existence of the listed species, is inherently arbitrary and capricious.” [my emphasis]

Arbitrary and capricious — now that’s a slap-down. He also reportedly called the ESA listing “an abuse of discretion.”

The question is, how often have other ESA listings – not challenged in court – been based on similarly arbitrary and capricious decisions that also involved an abuse of discretion?

More quotes from Judge Beistline’s decision, and reaction to it, below.
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