A man wearing a black hat smiles for the camera

Big visitors, big challenge

Village, Service rally to save walruses coming ashore

By Andrea Medeiros | July 23, 2018

Point Lay, Alaska

The elders in Point Lay, a small Inupiaq village in the northwest reaches of Alaska, remember a time when the Arctic sea ice and the animals that depend on it followed reliable patterns. In particular, they tell of a time when only a handful of Pacific walruses visited the shores of the barrier island just beyond their community.

In recent years, what was once true is no longer. Thousands of Pacific walruses now show up, raising concerns and sparking a community-wide effort to help the massive marine mammal survive in a dramatically changing environment.

A mother nurses her young on a floating piece of ice.
Cow and calf walrus resting on sea ice. Females and young prefer to hang out on ice floes in small groups where they can easily access feeding grounds and be relatively safe from predators. In recent years as sea ice has retreated north beyond feeding grounds during the summer, they’ve been forced to come to shore to rest. Photo by USFWS.

“When the walrus first started coming to shore, it was kind of strange to us,” said Leo Ferreira III, a former village tribal president. “Then we just realized that there is no ice and that is why they’re coming to shore.”

The arrival of these big visitors has prompted a partnership that includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) — an effort designed to protect the seagoing mammals and their young while on shore.

Since 2007, say biologists, walrus female and their calves have been leaving the Chukchi Sea and coming ashore on a barrier island near Point Lay, a village 700 miles northwest of Anchorage on Alaska’s North Slope. They show up in late summer or early fall — a response, scientists say, to the loss of sea ice. Biologists call these groups of walruses on land haulouts.

High school students sit in a circle with a video camera
High school students from the community school worked with the Alaska Teen Media Institute to tell Point Lay’s story. The students developed questions and interviewed elders, adults and one another on camera. Portions of the interviews have been used to develop outreach products to encourage others to be stewards of the walruses. When a haulout occurs, links to products are included in news releases and shared on social media. Photo by Brian Adams.

This is a marked change in behavior. Traditionally, mothers and their young left the Chukchi’s depths to rest on sea ice. Walruses are better suited to life on the ice instead of land, as they can slip easily back into the sea to forage or avoid predators.

On land, the creatures are skittish: A sight, sound or odor can cause the walruses to panic and flee to the sea for safety. When large numbers of animals do this it is called a stampede. The animals — particularly the yearlings and calves — can get injured or killed.

Thousands of walruses now come to the barrier island just north of Point Lay, said Jim MacCracken, a supervisory wildlife biologist with the Service. “...The site has been occupied by as many as 40,000 animals at its peak,” he said.

A woman with black hair and warm clothes stands with the Pacific Ocean at her back.
Cilia Attungowruk, a tribal council member, watches for barges or vessels to make sure they don’t come too close or stop at the haulout. “Our community and our elders are really good at watching the ocean and the lagoon to make sure there’s no traffic coming fairly close to scare those walruses,” she said. Photo by Brian Adams.

Walruses aren’t the only seasonal visitors to Point Lay. The large mammals’ arrival draws reporters and other curious people, too. That’s not surprising. The creatures are immense — a male walrus weighs about the same as a Toyota RAV-4, about 3,700 pounds.

But Point Lay does not have the infrastructure to host the two-legged visitors: there are no restaurants, and the only lodging in town closed in 2016.

These new challenges prompted a partnership between the Service and the Native Village of Point Lay, the Alaska Native tribe in Point Lay. With support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), the tribe and Service monitor and safeguard the haulout. Those efforts include notifying people that the animals are on shore and providing guidelines for those who travel in the area, including pilots, mariners and subsistence hunters.

A man stands next to a set of illustrated notes from a meeting on a whiteboard.
Warren Lampe, a Point Lay resident, presented with Service staff at an environmental conference in Anchorage, Alaska, in February 2018. For several years, Lampe has been part of a team that erects four towers, each with three trail cameras, on the barrier island to capture images of the animals. Photo by USFWS.

Aircraft overflights are particularly concerning.“We noticed that during that time the airplane traffic was causing stampedes,” said Ferreira. “I witnessed it with my own eyes.”

The Service and village contact local air carriers directly and work with the Federal Aviation Administration to let pilots know when the animals have hauled out and provide the guidelines.

A man in a black hat and blue collared shirt gives an interview
“We had a few times that they gathered through here. They’d say, ‘oh we got lots of walrus up north,’ but there were like 10–12, not, you know, 40,000.” - Point Lay Elder Allen Upicksoun. Photo by USFWS.

The partnership doesn’t end there. The Service and the tribe have worked with the nonprofit Alaska Teen Media Institute to develop short educational videos about the community, its traditions and its connection to the walrus. Youth at the local school, with training and support of the institute, interviewed elders and one another for the videos.

Point Lay and the Service have a common goal: to keep walruses around for future generations.

In Point Lay, people are guided by their traditional value of respecting the earth and all that it provides for future generations. The Service and the tribe will continue to work together to keep the walruses safe while on shore.

“We can prevent walrus disturbance and many trampling deaths,” Ferreira said, “but everyone needs to listen and pay attention to help the walrus.”

Andrea Medeiros is a public affairs specialist with the Alaska Region in Anchorage, Alaska.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service supported this Nature's Good Neighbor through our Marine Mammals Management program, an initiative aimed at protecting walruses, sea otters, polar bears and other wildlife.

Special thanks to the Native Village of Point Lay and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.