Headless Walrus Bodies Found on Alaskan Beach Prompt Federal Investigation
Dozens of Pacific walrus were found dead on an isolated northwest Alaska beach last week, prompting federal prosecutors to open an investigation into the case Friday.
A person associated with a nearby Air Force radar station reported the sighting, near Cape Lisburne, to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Initial reports indicated the herd of 13 adults and 12 pups had been shot, and some were decapitated—raising suspicions that poachers had targeted the walruses for their ivory tusks.
While the photos seem to confirm the early reports, law enforcement officials have yet to determine the cause of death. The Office of Law Enforcement in Anchorage declined to comment on the investigation.
In Alaska, harvesting walrus is considered legal for those who identify as Alaska Natives, though the FWS has specific guidelines for walrus hunting. Native hunters can harvest walrus under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, granted it isn’t wasteful and hunters don’t target the animals for just ivory—commonly known as “head-hunting.”
Walrus tusks are often used for Native jewelry and clothing, and walrus meat is a traditional source of protein.
“This kind of stuff, we don’t tolerate,” Steve Oomittuk, a subsistence whale and walrus hunter in nearby Point Hope, told the Alaskan Public Radio Network. “The animals have always been a food source for us. And we were never taught to waste, or anything like that. So we just want to get to the bottom of this and find out what exactly happened.”
The Pacific walrus is considered a threatened species owing to decreasing levels of sea ice caused by climate change. Without stable, floating sheets of sea ice to rest on, herds of walrus are forced to seek shelter on Russian and Alaskan coasts, where they’re easier targets for hunters and poachers. This year, Arctic sea ice reached the fourth-lowest minimum extent since 1979, when satellites were first implemented to observe sea ice coverage, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
The U.S. District Attorney’s Office of Alaska has yet to release more information on the investigation details.