U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered to reconsider walrus listing

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not adequately support its decision not to list the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) under the Endangered Species Act, a federal court ruled earlier this month.

After a USFWS document support the subspecies’ listing in 2011, the agency decided in 2017 not to list the walrus. Judges have found that the more recent decision offered only a “cursory explanation of why the findings underlying its 2011 decision no longer applied,” according to the opinion filed earlier this month. The appeals court noted that “although the assessment contained some new information, the actual decision document did not explain why this new information resulted in an about-face from the Service’s 2011 conclusion that the Pacific walrus met the statutory criteria for listing.”

In 2008, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition requesting that the USFWS list the Pacific walrus as threatened or endangered and designate its critical habitat. They argued that the walrus in the Bering and Chukchi Seas constituted a distinct population segment that was eligible for listing due threats of rapid degradation and loss of its sea ice habitat as a result of climate change. The Pacific walrus, which lives in shallow continental shelf waters of the Arctic, relies on sea ice for survival.

In response to that petition, the USFWS initiated a status review to determine if listing was warranted. In 2011, the USFWS published its determination that although listing was warranted, it was precluded by higher priority actions. In May 2017, the agency published a Species Status Assessment prepared to assist them in determining whether to propose a listing rule or remove the Pacific walrus from the candidate list, in accordance with a court settlement in a separate case.

That assessment determined that while “environmental changes over the last several years such as sea ice loss and associated stressors are impacting Pacific walruses … other stressors that were identified in 2011 have declined in magnitude,” and the Pacific walrus no longer qualified for protection under the ESA.

The appeals court ordered the USFWS to reconsider its decision not to list the Pacific walrus under the ESA, noting that the USFWS might be able to prepare a sufficient decision document justifying the change between 2011 and 2017 although it failed to do so in the past.

Read TWS’ Standing Position on Threatened and Endangered Species in the U.S. and Position Statement on the U.S. Endangered Species Act

Header Image: An appeals court determined that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not adequately support its 2017 decision not to list the Pacific Walrus under the Endangered Species Act. Credit: Joel Garlich-Miller/USFWS