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‘Blatant nonsense’: Media hyped walrus climate scare stories debunked

Walrus Key Points:

  • Zoologist Dr. Susan Crockford: Mass haulouts of Pacific walrus and stampede deaths are not new, not due to low ice cover – ‘The attempts by WWF and others to link this event to global warming is self-serving nonsense that has nothing to do with science…this is blatant nonsense and those who support or encourage this interpretation are misinforming the public.’
  • ‘The Pacific walrus remains abundant, numbering at least 200,000 by some accounts, double the number in the 1950s’
  • ‘Dating back to at least the 1604, there have been reports of large walrus gatherings or haulouts.’ – ‘Walrus haulouts are not unusual and have long been recognized and islands have been set aside for such gatherings.’
  • Walruses known to migrate away from ice in late summer & fall: “In the non-reproductive season (late summer and fall) walruses tend to migrate away from the ice and form massive aggregations of tens of thousands of individuals on rocky beaches or outcrops.”
  • AP’s own reporting debunks unprecedented walrus claims:  The AP reported on 40,000 walruses in a haulout just 7 years ago in a single location.
  • Walrus stampede deaths drop dramatically from 3000 in 2007 to 50 in 2014?: AP: 2007: ‘3,000 walruses die in stampedes tied to Climate’
  • Walrus stampede deaths benefit polar bears: ‘Stampeded remains of 100 walruses fed up to 185 polar bears’

Climate Depot Special Report

The October 1, 2014 Associated Press article linking the walrus gathering to melting sea ice, lacks historical perspective and contains serious spin that would lead readers to erroneous conclusions about walruses and the climate. [Update: Zoologist Dr. Susan Crockford weighs in: Mass haulouts of Pacific walrus and stampede deaths are not new, not due to low ice cover – ‘The attempts by WWF and others to link this event to global warming is self-serving nonsense that has nothing to do with science…this is blatant nonsense and those who support or encourage this interpretation are misinforming the public.’ ]

First off, walruses are not endangered. According to the New York Times, “the Pacific walrus remains abundant, numbering at least 200,000 by some accounts, double the number in the 1950s.”

The AP article titled, “35,000 walrus come ashore in northwest Alaska”, claims “the gathering of walrus on shore is a phenomenon that has accompanied the loss of summer sea ice as the climate has warmed.” The AP even includes the environmental group World Wildlife Fund, to ramp up climate hype. “It’s another remarkable sign of the dramatic environmental conditions changing as the result of sea ice loss,” said Margaret Williams, managing director of the group’s Arctic program, by phone from Washington, D.C.Pacific Walrus_Davi

But the AP is recycling its own climate stories on walruses. See: 2009: AP: Walruses Gather as Ice Melts in the Arctic Sea (Sep 17 2009) Also see fact check on “melting” Arctic sea ice. See: Paper: ‘Myth of arctic meltdown’ : Stunning satellite images show ice cap has grown by an area twice the size of Alaska in two years – Despite Al Gore’s prediction it would be ICE-FREE by now

The media and green groups are implying that walrus hanging out by the tens of thousands is a new phenomenon and due to melting Arctic ice. But dating back to at least the 1604, there have been reports of large walrus gatherings or haulouts.

Excerpt: “Walruses became only really known in Europe after the 1604 expedition to the Kola Peninsula of the ship “Speed” of Muscovy Company, commanded by Stephen Bennet. On the way back to England the Speed reached what some years before a Dutch expedition had named “Bear Island”. The crew of the Speed discovered a haulout numbering about a thousand walruses on the island’s northern coast.”

According to a National Geographic article in 2007, walrus populations were not endangered. See: “While scientists lack a firm population estimate for the species, researchers have encountered herds as large as 100,000 in recent years”

Even the green activists group, the WWF, admits walrus ‘hangouts’ of tens of thousands are not unprecedented.

A 2009 WWF blog report noted: “WWF Polar Bear coordinator Geoff York returned on 17 September from a trip along the Russian coast and saw a haul out there with an estimated 20,000 walruses near Ryrkaipiy (on the Chukchi Peninsula).”

AP’s own reporting debunks walrus claims

Are 35,000 walruses gathering in “haulouts” on the shoreline with many be stampeded to death really that unusual? The answer is No!
The AP reported on 40,000 walruses in a haulout just 7 years ago in a single location. See: AP 12/14/2007: “40,000 in one spot” – “As a result, walruses came ashore earlier and stayed longer, congregating in extremely high numbers, with herds as big as 40,000 at Point Shmidt, a spot that had not been used by walruses as a “haulout” place for a century, scientists said.”

As climate blogger Tom Nelson noted in a December 28 2007 analysis:  “Are you saying that that spot *was* used as a haulout in earlier years?” Nelson wrote.

Nelson noted the media reported that “Walruses are vulnerable to stampedes when they gather in such large numbers. The appearance of a polar bear, a hunter or a low-flying airplane can send them rushing to the water.”

Nelson then asked: “Are stampedes ever caused by the appearance of researchers or low-flying research planes?”

Walrus stampede deaths drop dramatically from 3000 to 50?

The October 1, 2014 AP article notes with obvious concern for the walrus species: “Observers last week saw about 50 carcasses on the beach from animals that may have been killed in a stampede…”

Fifty walrus carcasses? That number is a significant improvement from 2007 when there were a reported 3000 dead walruses discovered from the late summer and fall on the Russian side of the Arctic, according to the AP’s own earlier reporting. See: 2007: ‘3,000 walruses die in stampedes tied to Climate’

Are walrus stampede deaths declining in recent years? It is difficult to say based on reports, but a high of 3000 deaths in 2007 (for a whole season) to a low of 50 deaths in 2014 for a single location, but it does not  appear to be an alarming trend. Why does the AP fail to put any historical perspective on their climate scare stories, especially when the AP’s own reporting from 7 years ago calls into question their claims?

The next issue is whether or not sea ice extent is critical to walruses in late summer and fall. According to this report, ice extent is not critical. As Nelson noted in 2007:

“When I read this in the (2007) ‘walrus’ Wikipedia entry, I’m also not convinced that lack of summer ice is necessarily a big deal.”

2007 Wikipedia entry: “In the non-reproductive season (late summer and fall) walruses tend to migrate away from the ice and form massive aggregations of tens of thousands of individuals on rocky beaches or outcrops.” [Note: This line has been omitted from the Wikipedia entry in 2014]

Walrus stampede deaths benefit polar bears

In addition, a 2007 WWF post inadvertently noted that the carcasses of stampeded walruses may actually be a great benefit to polar bears.

“Last fall some 20,000-30,000 animals were piled up there. No one has actually counted them all, but the Vankarem residents are certain the number is growing…In early winter, when the ice is re-forming and walruses leave the beach, up to 100 carcasses remain behind. These blubbery animals offer a perfect meal for wandering and hungry polar bears…In mid-November, a truck driver alerted the patrol to bear tracks on the beach. The wave had begun. For the next three weeks, bears making their way along the coast stopped to graze on the carcasses at this so-called “feeding point” instead of proceeding to the village. At one time alone, Sergey and his team counted 96 bears feeding on the walrus. In total they estimated that 185 bears had been circulating with a six mile radius around the village.”

The stampeded remains of 100 walruses fed up to 185 polar bears!

But despite the easily accessible historical data on walruses, the WWF and the AP and other media in 2014, continue to spin the haulouts as evidence of “climate change.”

Margaret Williams, WWF’s managing director of the Arctic program said in a September 18, 2014 article: “The massive concentration of walruses onshore—when they should be scattered broadly in ice-covered waters—is just one example of the impacts of climate change on the distribution of marine species in the Arctic.”

Is the WWF correct? Should walruses be “scattered broadly in ice-covered waters”? Not exactly. As Tom Nelson noted on Twitter, (Tom Nelson‏@tan123) “If walrus haulouts are a new thing, why was this walrus haulout sanctuary established in 1960”

According to the Alaskan government, walrus haulouts are not unusual and have long been recognized and islands have been set aside for such gatherings.

Excerpt: “The Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary (WISGS), protects a group of seven small craggy islands and their adjacent waters in northern Bristol Bay, approximately 65 miles southwest of Dillingham. The WISGS includes Round Island, Summit Island, Crooked Island, High Island, Black Rock and The Twins. The WISGS was established in 1960 to protect one of the largest terrestrial haulout sites in North America for Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens).”

The Alaskan government report noted that numbers of 14,000 walrus haulouts in a single day were not unusual.

“Each summer large numbers of male walruses haul out on exposed, rocky beaches. Round Island is one of four major terrestrial haulouts in Alaska; the others are Capes Peirce (Togiak NWR), Newenham (Togiak NWR), and Seniavin (near Port Moller). Male walrus return to these haulouts every spring as the ice pack recedes northward, remaining in Bristol Bay to feed they haul out at these beach sites for several days between each feeding foray. The number of walrus using the island fluctuates significantly from year to year. However, up to 14,000 walrus have been counted on Round Island in a single day.”

Hunters have relied on large hangouts of walruses. This report details how walruses were “predictably present” and made for “clean and efficient butchering.”

Expert: “Qayassiq was especially important for walrus hunting because it was accessible in good weather; walruses were predictably present on the beach during the preferred fall hunt; and the beach is rocky, not sandy, promoting clean and efficient butchering. Hunting on haulouts was a highly organized activity.”

Update: Zoologist Dr. Susan Crockford weighs in: Mass haulouts of Pacific walrus and stampede deaths are not new, not due to low ice cover – ‘The attempts by WWF and others to link this event to global warming is self-serving nonsense that has nothing to do with science… this is blatant nonsense and those who support or encourage this interpretation are misinforming the public.’ – Large haulouts of walruses — such as the one making news at Point Lay, Alaska on the Chukchi Sea (and which happened before back in 2009 — are not a new phenomenon for this region over the last 45 years and thus cannot be due to low sea ice levels. Nor are deaths by stampede within these herds (composed primarily of females and their young) unusual, as a brief search of the literature reveals. At least two documented incidents like this have occurred in the recent past: one in 1978, on St. Lawrence Island and the associated Punuk Islands and the other in 1972, on Wrangell Island (Fay and Kelly 1980, excerpts below)… Here is how the WWF is spinning this recent gathering at Point Lay:

We are witnessing a slow-motion catastrophe in the Arctic,” said Lou Leonard, WWF’s vice president for climate change.”

Crockford Summed it up: “As you can see, this is blatant nonsense and those who support or encourage this interpretation are misinforming the public.”

Related Link: Tom Nelson’s 2007 report: About those walrus stampedes – FRIDAY, DECEMBER 28, 2007

Google currently shows about 14,000 hits for “walruses stampedes”.

Excerpts from a typical scare story, along with my comments:

The giant, tusked mammals typically clamber onto the sea ice to rest, or haul themselves onto land for just a few weeks at a time.

Ok, so it’s not unusual for them to haul up on land. Google shows a lot of pictures of them on land.

As a result, walruses came ashore earlier and stayed longer, congregating in extremely high numbers, with herds as big as 40,000 at Point Shmidt, a spot that had not been used by walruses as a “haulout” for a century, scientists said.

Are you saying that that spot *was* used as a haulout in earlier years?

Walruses are vulnerable to stampedes when they gather in such large numbers. The appearance of a polar bear, a hunter or a low-flying airplane can send them rushing to the water.

Are stampedes ever caused by the appearance of researchers or low-flying research planes?

Sure enough, scientists received reports of hundreds and hundreds of walruses dead of internal injuries suffered in stampedes. Many of the youngest and weakest animals, mostly calves born in the spring, were crushed.

Biologist Anatoly Kochnev of Russia’s Pacific Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography estimated 3,000 to 4,000 walruses out of population of perhaps 200,000 died, or two or three times the usual number on shoreline haulouts.

Were anecdotal reports of “hundreds and hundreds” used to come up with the estimate of 3,000 to 4,000? How much actual counting was done? What’s the baseline number of annual stampede deaths? Is anyone checking that any animals found dead were killed in stampedes, rather than dying from some other cause?

No large-scale walrus die-offs were seen in Alaska during the same period, apparently because the animals congregated in smaller groups on the American side of the Bering Strait, with the biggest known herd at about 2,500.

So when a walrus herd of 2,500 is panicked, stampede deaths are not a big deal, but when the herd reaches tens of thousands, we can expect lots of stampede deaths?

It seems to me that more walruses worldwide may die from hunting than from stampedes. Note an excerpt from this Sea World link:

As the Pacific walrus population grew, annual subsistence catches by indigenous Arctic peoples ranged from about 3,000 to 16,000 walruses per year until about 1990, and then decreased to an average of 5,789 animals per year from 1996 to 2000.

A related paragraph is here:

Pacific walrus meat has been used for the past 40 years to feed foxes which are kept on government – subsidised fur farms in Chukotka. One estimate made by natives was of an annual kill of 10,000 – 12,000 walruses per year, but this may have been overstated. Recent investigations have found that much of the meat is left to waste and that there are no markets for the resultant fox furs. Fox farming operations in Chukotka are currently in decline due to economic recession. Local unemployment caused by the general economic situation and the closure of the farms has however led to a recent increase in illegal head-hunting.

Some more background information is in this 2007 WWF post:

Last fall some 20,000-30,000 animals were piled up there. No one has actually counted them all, but the Vankarem residents are certain the number is growing.

In early winter, when the ice is re-forming and walruses leave the beach, up to 100 carcasses remain behind. These blubbery animals offer a perfect meal for wandering and hungry polar bears.

As soon as the walruses departed, the polar bear patrol spent several days working to collect the remains of walruses killed in the stampedes. Using a tractor, they carted the carcasses six miles west of the village, anticipating that the bears would come from the west in the fall. In the end, they scattered some 80 walruses around selected sites — and then they waited.

In mid-November, a truck driver alerted the patrol to bear tracks on the beach. The wave had begun. For the next three weeks, bears making their way along the coast stopped to graze on the carcasses at this so-called “feeding point” instead of proceeding to the village. At one time alone, Sergey and his team counted 96 bears feeding on the walrus. In total they estimated that 185 bears had been circulating with a six mile radius around the village.

My comments: Eighty-100 dead walruses out of 20,000-30,000 hauled out on land seems quite low, if Kochnev’s estimate of 3,000-4,000 total stampede deaths is correct (remember, his estimate is based on a population of maybe 200,000, many of which are not hauled out in huge herds).

Also, if polar bear numbers are so threatened by global warming, what are 185 of them doing within six miles of the village?

When I read stuff like this, I’m also not completely convinced that walruses are threatened with extinction:

…researchers have encountered herds as large as 100,000 in recent years…

When I read this in the “walrus” Wikipedia entry, I’m also not convinced that lack of summer ice is necessarily a big deal:

“In the non-reproductive season (late summer and fall) walruses tend to migrate away from the ice and form massive aggregations of tens of thousands of individuals on rocky beaches or outcrops.”

In the same entry, when I read this, I’m not convinced that polar bears really need year-round sea ice in order to feed successfully.”

Polar bears hunt walruses by rushing at beached aggregations and consuming those individuals that are crushed or wounded in the sudden mass exodus, typically younger or infirm animals.

Some video of polar bears successfully hunting walruses is here and here. I don’t see any ice in that first hunting scene.