POINT LAY, Alaska (KTUU) - A herd of about 6,000 Pacific Walruses appears to have moved on after hauling out on a barrier island near the village of Point Lay last week, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The walruses are likely heading south to coastal haulouts in Chukotka, Russia,” said USFWS biologist Joel Garlich-Miller in a Wednesday press release.
The walruses, sometimes in herds as large as 40,000, have used the Point Lay area as a haul out in mid-to-late August since 2007. Biologists say the decline in sea ice is to blame.
But this year, the walruses arrived later in the year, with the first animals arriving on Friday, October 7. Fish and Wildlife says that’s because sea ice persisted in eastern areas of the Chukchi Sea over the summer, allowing the walruses to stay out at sea longer. Overall however, this year’s sea ice minimums were the second lowest in recorded history.
“In recent weeks, herds of walrus have been reported moving south along the coast and a few temporary haulouts have been reported at Cape Lisburne and Point Lay,” Fish and Wildlife wrote.
Village officials in Point Lay earlier this week warned residents and visitors to stay away from the animals. The Associated Press reports that the Fish and Wildlife Service obtained a $140,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to help Point Lay spread the word that walruses are vulnerable to stampedes and to stay away when they're on shore.
According to biologists, these fall haulouts are primarily frequented by cows and calves. Once the haulout was noticed, Point Lay and the USFWS coordinated with the Federal Aviation Administration to make sure that all aircraft avoided the airspace.
“Walrus are an important food source for the community and have been part of their Inupiaq culture for thousands of years,” Fish and Wildlife wrote. “The Native Village of Point Lay has taken a lead role in stewardship of the walrus haulout in order to prevent disturbance events.”