Walruses in Alaska may have died in stampede

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Thousands of Pacific walrus are coming to Alaska’s northwest shore again in the absence of summer sea ice and not all are surviving.

A survey Monday of a mile of coastline near the Inupiaq Eskimo village of Point Lay found 64 dead walruses, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told The Associated Press.

Most of the animals were younger than a year old. The cause of death is not known, said agency spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros, but stampedes — set off when startled walruses rush to the sea, crushing smaller animals — are a likely suspect.

“Our thinking is, because of the age of the animals — they were young animals — it’s likely that it was caused by a stampede, probably more likely than disease, given the age class,” Medeiros said.

A polar bear, hunter, airplane or boat can cause a stampede. Alaska Native residents of Point Lay, who may legally hunt walrus for food, expressed concern after seeing an airplane flying near the herd and possibly circling.

“That certainly is a concern,” Medeiros said. “That’s not what we want people to be doing.”

Fish and Wildlife Service guidelines instruct pilots of single-engine planes to stay at least a half-mile away from walruses on land or ice, and if closer, to fly above 2,000 feet (610 meters).

The guidelines call for helicopters and multi-engine aircraft to stay a mile away, or if closer, above 3,000 feet (915 meters). The agency warns that it is only guidance but creating a disturbance is a violation of federal law.

Several hundred walruses came ashore near Point Lay on Aug. 3, the earliest recorded appearance of a herd in a phenomenon tied to climate warming and diminished Arctic Ocean sea ice.

A week later, the number had grown to 2,000. In the past month, 30,000 to 40,000 walruses at times have crowded the beach, Medeiros said.

Walrus dive hundreds of feet to eat clams on the ocean bottom, but unlike seals, they cannot swim indefinitely. Historically, sea ice has provided a platform for rest and safety far from predators for mothers and calves north of the Bering Strait.

However, sea ice has receded much farther north in recent years because of global warming, beyond the shallow continental shelf, over water more than 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) deep. That’s far too deep for walruses to reach the ocean bottom.