* Many walruses spotted in Arctic oil lease sale area
* Loss of sea ice makes them move onto land
By Deborah Zabarenko, Environment Correspondent
WASHINGTON, Aug 17 Fast-melting Arctic sea ice
appears to be pushing walruses to haul themselves out onto
land, and many are moving around the area where oil leases have
been sold, the U.S. Geological Survey reports.
Walruses are accomplished divers and frequently plunge
hundreds of feet (meters) to the bottom of the continental
shelf to feed. But they use sea ice as platforms to give birth,
nurse their young and elude predators, and when sea ice is
scarce or non-existent, as it has been this summer, they come
up on land.
Last September, the loss of sea ice caused an estimated
10,000 to 20,000 walruses to venture onto land, and as sea ice
melts reached a record last month, U.S. government scientists
are working with Alaskan villagers to put radio transmitters on
some of the hauled-out walruses to track their movements around
the Chukchi Sea.
"The ice is very widely dispersed and there is little of it
left over the continental shelf," researcher Chad Jay of the
U.S. Geological Survey said in a statement on Wednesday. "Based
on our tracking data, the walruses appear to be spreading out
and spending quite a bit of time looking for sea ice."
The loss of sea ice puts Pacific walruses at risk,
according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but other,
higher-priority species will get attention first. In February,
the wildlife service listed Pacific walruses as candidates for
protection, though not protection itself.
Walruses are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection
Act, which means these animals cannot be harvested, imported,
exported or be part of interstate commerce.
Polar bears, which also use sea ice in the Chukchi Sea as
platforms for hunting, have been designated as threatened under
the U.S. Endangered Species Act because of declining sea ice in
Compared to last year's massive haul-out, there are few
walruses on land, and there is no solid count, Jay said.
"There is a lot less ice than there used to be on the
continental shelf this time of year," he said. "So we might be
headed into a new normal."
Transmissions from the radio-tagged walruses offer a good
picture of where these creatures are in the Chukchi Sea in a
U.S. Geological Survey graphic updated approximately weekly.
SHRINKING ARCTIC SEA ICE
Available online here , the graphic shows where the walruses were when they
were first tagged (shown as red Xs) and how they moved around
the water (shown as yellow dots).
The graphic also shows changes in sea ice cover in the far
north, indicating nearly ice-free conditions in areas where the
walruses are moving. Many are within the boundaries of an oil
lease sale area that stretches along the northwestern Alaska
coast and far into the Chukchi Sea.
Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L), ConocoPhillips (COP.N) and
Statoil (STO.N) hold leases in the Chukchi Sea, though no
drilling has started.
Last month saw Arctic sea ice drop to its lowest extent --
meaning that it covered the smallest area -- for any July since
satellite records began in 1979, according to the U.S. National
Snow and Ice Data Center. Typically, Arctic sea ice hits its
lowest extent for the year in September.
This record-low ice extent for July is lower than July ice
extent in 2007, when ice extent shrank in September to its
smallest area in the satellite record.
(Editing by Sandra Maler)