As sea ice melts, some say walruses need better protection
By DAN JOLING
Sunday, October 14
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Given a choice between giving birth on land or sea ice, Pacific walrus mothers most often choose ice.
Likewise, they prefer sea ice for molting, mating, nursing and resting between dives for food. Trouble is, as the century progresses, there’s going to be far less ice around.
How well walruses cope with less sea ice is at the heart of a legal fight over whether walruses should be listed as a threatened species, giving them an added protection against human encroachments.
The federal government in 2008 listed polar bears as a threatened species because of diminished sea ice brought on by climate warming. That year the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to do the same for walruses.
However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded in October 2017 that walruses are adapting and no one has proven that they “need” sea ice.
“It is unknown whether Pacific walruses can give birth, conduct their nursing during immediate post-natal care period, or complete courtship on land,” said Justice Department lawyers in defending the decision.
A federal judge in Alaska will hear the center’s lawsuit challenging the government’s decision not to list the walrus as threatened. There is no court date set for the lawsuit.
Pacific walrus males grow to 12 feet (3.7 meters) long and up to 4,000 pounds (1,815 kilograms) — more than an average midsize sedan. Females reach half that weight. Walruses dive and use sensitive whiskers to find clams and snails in dim light on the sea floor.
Historically hunted for ivory tusks, meat and blubber, walruses since 1972 have been shielded by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Only Alaska Native subsistence hunters may legally kill them.
An Endangered Species Act listing would require the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for walruses and plan for their recovery. Federal agencies, before issuing permits for development such as offshore drilling, would be required to ensure walruses and their habitat would not be jeopardized.
Inaccessibility protected walruses for decades, but a rapid decline in summer sea ice has made them vulnerable.
In the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Russia, where Pacific walrus females and juveniles spend their summer, ice could be absent during that season by 2060 or sooner, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Since 1981, an area more than double the size of Texas — 610,000 square miles (1.58 million square kilometers) — has become unavailable to Arctic marine mammals by summer’s end, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
By late August, as sea ice recedes beyond the shallow continental shelf, female walruses and their calves face a choice: Stay on ice over water too deep to reach the ocean floor for feeding — or come ashore for rest periods, where the smallest animals can be crushed in stampedes triggered by a hunter, airplane or bear.
More open water already has meant more ship traffic. Walruses also could find more humans in their habitat with a reversal of U.S. policy on Arctic offshore drilling. Former President Barack Obama permanently withdrew most Arctic waters from lease sales, but President Donald Trump in April 2017 announced he was reversing Obama, a decision being challenged in court. The administration’s proposed five-year offshore leasing plan includes sales in the Chukchi Sea.
Designating walruses as threatened would mean oil exploration companies would have to consult with federal wildlife officials to make sure drill rigs don’t endanger the animals. However, Trump’s Interior and Commerce departments in July proposed administrative changes to the species law that would end automatic protections for threatened plants and animals and set limits on designating habitat as crucial to recovery.
Walruses are notoriously difficult to count — and population estimates range widely. A preliminary one in 2017 put the number at 283,213, with the caveat that it could be as low as 93,000 or as high as 478,975.
The array of stresses and uncertainty about the walruses’ future are enough evidence for listing them as threatened, the Center for Biological Diversity argues.
In the last decade, walruses that gathered on shores have suffered hundreds of stampede deaths, and the loss of ice floes has pushed them away from feeding areas, said Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the nonprofit conservation group.
“They’re not adapting. They’re suffering,” Wolf said.
Scientists advising the Fish and Wildlife Service say the answer is not so clear cut, and much is unknown about how sea ice loss will affect walruses.
Chad Jay of the U.S. Geological Survey said it’s unknown, for example, why female walruses give birth on ice instead of land.
“One of the thoughts is that … there’s more protection for the young from predators,” he said. “They’re offshore, and it’s a cleaner environment, too, for giving birth. But those are hypotheses that are difficult to prove.”
A nursing walrus needs to consume more than 7,800 clams per day, according to a federal assessment. And summer is the usual time for animals to fatten up.
When ice melted in alarming quantities, forcing females and their calves to shore in herds as large as 40,000, government scientists in 2008 tagged and tracked walruses to see how the changes affected their feeding.
They learned that females, forced to rest on beaches instead of ice, were still visiting their favorite feeding areas. However, the longer swims drew down fat reserves critical for lactating.
The walruses should be fine, the study concluded, if they can replace calories with additional feeding in winter, but whether that’s happening is unknown.
Undernourished females produce smaller offspring less likely to survive. The declining size of polar bear cubs in the southern Beaufort Sea was a factor in the decision to list them as threatened.
Endangered species law does not require perfect science to demonstrate adverse effects, Wolf said. When there’s uncertainty, she said, the benefit of the doubt goes to the species.
There have been previous geological time periods when walruses experienced a lack of sea ice, said Jay.
“Maybe they can get through that sort of an environment. Maybe they can’t,” he said. “No one really knows.”
Restocking wolves on Isle Royale raises questions about which species get rescued
October 15, 2018
Professor of Communication and Journalism, University of St. Thomas
Professor of Journalism and Chair, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Michigan State University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Isle Royale is one of the most remote U.S. national parks. It stretches across one large island, its namesake, and more than 400 smaller ones in northwest Lake Superior. The park’s main draws are wilderness and wildlife, including beaver, otters, moose, martens and – for the moment – a very few wolves.
This fall the National Park Service has released four wolves captured from the mainland on Isle Royale. Once there were 50 wolves on the island, but inbreeding, climate change and disease all but wiped them out in the past decade. Meanwhile, moose – the wolves’ chief prey – are eating island greenery down to the nub, adversely affecting many other species.
Restocking wolves on Isle Royale is the first time that the National Park Service has intervened in a designated wilderness area to manipulate a predator-prey relationship. The agency plans to move 25 to 30 wolves to Isle Royale in the next three to five years and spend about US$2 million over 20 years to maintain the population.
Supporters call this plan a “genetic rescue,” but skeptics say nature should be allowed to take its course. We think this is unlikely to happen, because wolves have friends in high places in the scientific establishment and the federal government.
As environmental journalists and journalism educators in the Midwest, we take a special interest in how the Great Lakes’ ecological problems are defined and communicated. In our view, media attention and the cultural history of the wolf-moose relationship on Isle Royale have outweighed most scientific qualms about putting a finger on the ecological scale.
Two charismatic species
Wolves and moose are charismatic megafauna whose fate on Isle Royale has attracted widespread public interest and media attention. Both species have cultural meanings that extend beyond their predator-prey relationship.
Moose were first sighted on the island around the turn of the 20th century, and scientists have been examining them continuously since at least the late 1920s. Wolves arrived around 1949. For decades they could reach the island by crossing over ice from the mainland in winter. Now climate change is altering ice formation in Lake Superior, leaving wolves on the island isolated.
Isle Royale measures just over 200 square miles and is well-suited for ecological research. Animals exist there in relatively small (and thus, countable) numbers. The island is easily accessible by boat, ski-plane and seaplane, weather permitting.
And it is isolated. More people visit Yellowstone National Park on a single summer day than trek to Isle Royale in an entire season, which runs from May into October. There are no roads and no motors allowed. The only people present in winter are park employees and scientists.
Grey wolves in the Great Lakes region have been moved on and off of the U.S. Endangered Species List several times in the past 20 years. But they are not as controversial here as they are in the western United States – perhaps because fewer farmers and ranchers are affected by their presence, or because even though their numbers dipped to a few hundred in the 1960s, they never really went away.
Altering natural processes
In 1934 Adolph Murie, one of the first biologists to conduct research at Isle Royale, suggested that introducing a native species to prey on moose, such as bears, cougars or wolves, would “add materially to the animal interests of the island.” By some accounts the first pair of wolves crossed an ice bridge to the island from Ontario in 1949. Three years later, writer and wolf advocate Lee Smits brought four more wolves from the Detroit Zoo to the island.
Over the next several decades the wolf population grew, peaking at 50 in 1980 and then declining due to inbreeding, fighting among wolves, disease and starvation. Even with wolf predation, the moose population swelled, shrank and swelled again, peaking in 1995 at about 2,450. Although Murie had hoped these two species would achieve ecological balance, wolf and moose numbers fluctuated between peaks and crashes.
Today, if there are indeed two “native” wolves left – only one has been spotted since January 2017 – they are a father-daughter pair, born to the same mother, whose mating efforts have failed. In its report advocating for the stocking program, the National Park Service concluded that “[a]t this time, due to the low number remaining, genetic inbreeding, and the remoteness of Isle Royale, natural recovery of the population is unlikely due to tenuous nature of ice bridge formation.”
Some observers would rather let natural processes play out. “For me, waiting for ice bridges to form makes the most scientific and ecological sense,” says Seth Moore, director of biology and environment for the Grand Portage Band of Chippewa in Minnesota. “We are also worried that wolves stocked on the island will escape, perhaps with different parasites, and come to Grand Portage,” where five packs of wolves now live.
A male and a female wolf, trapped on the Grand Portage reservation, were released at different locations on Sept. 25, 2018, and two more females were released in early October. Another female wolf trapped at Grand Portage died in custody on Sept. 27 before it could be moved to the island.
Who to save next?
Even if the plan works well, wolf sightings will remain rare because of the island’s terrain and topography. “You’ll find tracks in the mud and scat, and hear occasional howling,” says park superintendent Phyllis Green. “They run our trails mostly at night when we’re not on them and they’re not very visible to the public. If people want to see wolves, they need to go to Yellowstone.”
Genetic rescue is a relatively new idea in wildlife biology and has never been attempted in a national park ecosystem, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has transferred panthers from Texas to south Florida to save an isolated and inbred population there. The wolf project raises many questions. If it works, will the National Park Service undertake similar efforts elsewhere? Should it? How will it choose which species to save? Is inbreeding in a small population a more serious threat than the loss of an animal in an ecosystem, however contained? What about birds, fish, insects or plants? And we haven’t even mentioned species threatened by climate change.
As conservation advocates know well, some species have more public appeal than others. “Rescuing” a charismatic species can have great public relations value, especially if it generates dramatic images. If the National Park Service attempts more genetic rescues, we expect media-friendly species will be the likely targets.
Protect The Wolves
We have to Question how it is the Authors can make a statement that Wolves have “Friends” in High Places, when they are being needlessly slaughtered around the Country?
It would appear that these 2 authors need to get in touch with whats happening in real life rather than a tiny island recognizing that wolves have no friends anywhere.
Climate change: 1.5°C is worth striving for – but is it feasible?
October 11, 2018
Professor of Science, Technology and Public Policy, UCL
Arthur Petersen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
University College London provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.
When the Paris Agreement in December 2015 called for the IPCC to put together a “Special Report” on Global Warming of 1.5°C, scientists knew very little about the exact differences that half a degree makes (1.5°C versus 2°C). Never before have so many independent studies been conducted at such short notice, in order to meet this pressing question of the global climate negotiations community. Is a warming of 2°C above pre-industrial levels sufficiently low a limit to avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system, and, if not, can we implement a lower limit?
Many researchers worked tirelessly to get their scientific publications accepted before the cutoff deadline in May 2018. And now we have the assessed result of their studies, summarised in about 30 pages.
So what have climate scientists learned?
First, nothing fundamentally new or surprising has arisen. I vividly remember being involved in crafting the sentences on climate change impacts at different temperatures in the IPCC’s previous full assessment round, which was finalised in 2014. We concluded that more warming increases the likelihood of “severe, pervasive, and irreversible impact”, that “some risks of climate change are considerable at 1 or 2°C above pre-industrial levels” and that “the overall risks of climate change impacts can be reduced by limiting the rate and magnitude of climate change”. It is important in interpreting the new report that the IPCC has never said that 2°C was “safe”.
The 2018 report now puts the particular differences between 1.5°C and 2°C under a magnifying glass. And it comes up with numbers to demonstrate the significant difference between the two, like in a statement that the lower temperature would mean 50% fewer people “exposed to a climate change induced increase in water stress”.
I also remember very well that another IPCC contact group that I co-chaired, in Berlin, concluded that reaching a 2°C target would probably entail large-scale afforestation and/or production of bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (BECCS).
In order to reach 1.5°C, no one should be surprised that the need to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it somewhere will only become greater. And indeed the 2018 report confirms that some sort of “carbon dioxide removal” will be necessary. Its use can remain limited, however (without even the need for BECCS) provided that there are fast and significant measures to cut emissions and “lower energy and land demand”.
Pipe dreams of 1.5°C
Providing the additional, detailed information to policymakers is all very useful. But what strikes me about this latest report is its tone. For the scientists involved it has become apparent (which they never said in so many words before) that the goalpost should be shifted from 2°C (which was already hard to reach) to 1.5°C (which is much harder to reach). Which leads one to ask: if climate scientists are so adamant about this now, why did they not create the opportunity themselves to issue such a warning before? And why did they wait for global leaders to ask them the question?
Politicians have often erroneously pointed to climate science – and the IPCC as its assessor in particular – as having provided the underpinning of the globally agreed target of 2°C. In 2015, the politicians effectively asked scientists to underpin a more stringent target. And they obliged. The scientific community needs to make it as clear as they can that it is not them who have now decided that 1.5°C is “safe”. The IPCC has only provided the evidence base that can inform politicians in their deliberations of whether they indeed wish to stay below that other target in the Paris Agreement, the limit of 1.5°C.
In those deliberations, the feasibility of staying below 1.5°C will feature prominently. And here the scientists will find it hard to admit that the scenarios they have conjured up are not at all realistic – they are more like a pipe dream. If they say, for instance, that large-scale carbon capture can be avoided by implementing incredibly fast and deep emission cuts now, they kind of set the world up for having to implement carbon capture anyway, given the difficulties that are involved in fast deep emission cuts worldwide.
The IPCC did not go further than stating that there are some “feasibility and sustainability constraints” related to many of its scenarios. A smart reader will understand that this means that these scenarios are not really feasible, politically and (since politics is fractured) economically.