In the summer of 1967, WC worked for the Institute of Marine Science as a deck technician. The job included stringing Nansen water sampling bottles on a line. The duty station – the “hero’s platform” – stuck out from the starboard rail. In rough water, the ship would roll and anyone on the hero’s platform would be staring right at the face of the next roller. WC was out there one windless morning, when the oncoming roller suddenly revealed a bull walrus.
That big, bull walrus bellowed. In the cold, dead calm air, the bellow was a visible fog, drifting towards WC. WC should have tried to hold his breath, but you try holding your breath when a walrus bellows at you from a few feet away.
WC gasped at the sight. And sucked down a big ol’ lung full of walrus breath.
The smell was horrible, gaggingly bad. WC kept his breakfast down, but the deckhand running the winch didn’t. The walrus disappeared into the wave without much more than a ripple.
That was WC’s first and only close-up sighting of a walrus in the wild.
Since then, the walrus population in Alaska has been in increasing danger. Pacific walruses live in Arctic waters off Alaska and need sea ice for giving birth, nursing and resting. Arctic sea-ice extent has hit numerous record lows the last five years. Their home is melting. Where ice remains, the water is too deep for them to reach the bottom to forage for food. Without strong action to reduce carbon pollution, summer sea ice will disappear completely in the next decade or two.
Today, the Walrus are forced to hault out on shore, Not only are available food sources rapidly exhausted; human disturbance triggers stampedes in the herds in which walrus are killed, trampled to death. Last month, an estimated 64 walruses, most of them less than a year old, were found dead near Point Lay. An even larger “haul out” of walruses at Point Lay with similar fatalities was documented in 2015. In 2011 the Obama administration said the walruses deserved protection but put them on a waiting list.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that determines which species can be classified as endangered, reported Wednesday that it can’t say with certainty that the Pacific walrus is likely to become endangered, despite the extensive loss of Arctic Sea ice due to global warming and undisputed immediate risks. U.S. Fish & Wildlife concluded, “While the Pacific walrus will experience a future reduction in availability of sea ice, resulting in reduced resiliency and redundancy, we are unable to reliably predict the magnitude of the effect and the behavioral response of the Pacific walrus to this change.” USF&WS concluded it is “possible” walrus would adapt.
It’s possible that salmon will learn to fly, and avoid the dams that clog their rivers.
It’s possible that birds will suddenly evolve an antidote to DDT.
It’s possible that burning coal will not generate CO2.
It’s possible that monkeys will fly out of the butt of President Trump.
But none of those things are going to happen. It’s possible that a horse will learn to sing. But you shouldn’t be gambling an entire species existence on the odds. For one thing, it’s a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Predictably, Senators Murkowski and Sullivan, and that worthless excuse for a U.S. Representative, Don Young, applauded the “decision.” WC doubts that those elected officials’ constituents on Gambell Island are happy about that.
The Kup’ik people of Gambell depend on walrus for food. The USF&WS decision is a kind of cultural genocide for the folks of Gambell and the rest of St. Lawrence Island.
WC is confident that the Center for Biological Diversity will appeal, and that the appeal will be successful. But that process will involve delay, and delay will further hurt Alaska’s walrus populations. Courts can close the barn doors that misguided political hacks leave open. But if the cow’s already gotten out, it’s too late.