ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - The Pacific walrus, hampered by vanishing sea ice in Arctic waters, deserves protection under the Endangered Species Act but must wait in line behind more imperiled animals, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman said on Tuesday.
The decision dashed environmentalists’ hopes that the lumbering, long-tusked marine mammal would soon join the polar bear as a federally protected icon of global warming.
But it also drew criticism from Alaska’s Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, who sided with the oil industry and other commercial interests in opposing new safeguards for either animal.
In a move that seemed to satisfy no one, the agency determined that listing the walrus as a threatened or endangered species was warranted but “precluded,” in part because higher-priority species, including a sea bird that feeds near coastal glaciers, need protecting first.
Agency spokesman Bruce Woods said difficulty in obtaining an accurate walrus population count and lingering uncertainty about how their numbers may have declined also were factors in the “warranted but precluded” recommendation.
The decision comes nearly two months after the government proposed listing two types of seals -- ringed and bearded seals -- as threatened species because the Arctic ice and snow they depend on is shrinking due to climate change.
They became the second and third animals, after polar bears, to be recommended for protection under the Endangered Species Act because of ice loss in Alaska.
The polar bear was formally listed as threatened in 2008, prompting a lawsuit by the state of Alaska and a number of commercial interests claiming the move would impose unnecessary barriers to oil development.
Murkowski issued a statement on Tuesday criticizing the walrus decision as opening the door to premature protection of a species without adequate science to back up the judgment.
But environmental groups were expected to challenge the Interior Department agency decision as not going far enough.
Pacific walruses, which depend on floating sea ice to rest, forage for food and nurture their young, are believed to number at least 129,000 animals, according to the latest population estimate issued last year.
That figure, based on incomplete aerial surveys by U.S. and Russian scientists, dwarfs an Alaska polar bear population hovering roughly around 3,500 animals.
“The main thing is that, compared to the polar bears, there are a lot of them,” Woods said of the Pacific walrus, adding that no baseline population count for the walrus exists.
“We don’t have any evidence of declines,” even if declines are suspected, he said.
Environmentalists who filed suit seeking Endangered Species Act protection have said there is little doubt that problems caused the walrus by scarce ice are showing up on shores in northeastern Alaska and across the Bering Strait in Siberia.
For the third time in four years, large groups of walruses were observed last summer assembling on shorelines of the Chukchi Sea instead of spreading over chunks of floating ice.
Such congregations place walruses far from the best sources of clams and other food they pluck from the icy waters. Their young are also at greater risk of being crushed in stampedes.
Woods said government biologists have noted that walruses have a “history of using land haul-outs” to rest and care for their young but acknowledged “that does increase the risks of predation, it does increase the risks of stampedes.”
Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the “warranted but precluded” determination offers the walrus no new safeguards.
“The walrus gets put on a waiting list for protection, and it waits indefinitely,” along with more than 250 other species on a candidates list, she said.
One candidate species is the Kittlitz’s murrelet, a seabird that feeds in areas around tidewater glaciers along the southern Alaska coast.
Woods said the murrelet is moving up the candidates list and is classified as a high priority, well above the Pacific walrus. Wolf said the bird was declared a candidate for protection in 2004 and has declined significantly since then.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Bohan