ANCHORAGE, Alaska – A national environmental organization filed notice Thursday that it will sue the Trump administration over its rejection of Pacific walrus as a threatened or endangered species.
The Center for Biological Diversity called the action last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service "an unlawful, politically motivated decision" that deprives walruses of needed protections in the face of climate change and melting sea ice.
"There's no question Pacific walruses are endangered, so denying them protection is absurd and dangerous," Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a prepared statement.
Gavin Shire, chief of public affairs for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency could not comment on the pending litigation.
The agency in 2011 said walruses deserve the additional protection of being declared threatened because climate change has diminished much of their primary habitat, sea ice. The agency delayed a listing because other species were a higher priority.
Under a court settlement requiring a final decision, however, the agency announced last week that it had reversed its conclusions from six years ago.
While acknowledging climate models showing the Chukchi Sea between northwest Alaska and Russia could be ice-free in summer by 2060, agency officials said they could not conclude with certainty that walruses would be affected because they have shown an ability to forage from shoreline resting areas.
"Walrus demonstrated much more ability to change their behaviors than previously thought," said Patrick Lemons, the agency's marine mammals management chief in Alaska.
Walruses, especially mothers with calves, use sea ice as a platform to rest, nurse, dive for clams and move to new foraging areas.
In recent years, sea ice in summer has melted far beyond shallow water to parts of the Arctic Ocean too deep for walruses to dive.
Without ice over shallow water, walruses have gathered by the thousands on the Alaska and Russia coasts where calves are vulnerable to predators or stampedes. About 100 mostly young animals have been killed this year near the Alaska village of Point Lay.
In the lawsuit notice, Monsell said the case for listing walruses had only grown stronger since 2011, with Arctic sea ice reaching record lows and projections of ice trending downward.
"The sea ice these animals need to survive is melting away," she said. "This ridiculous, about-face decision reflects the Trump administration's hostility to wildlife, science and the rule of law."