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Officials investigate rash of headless walrus carcasses
Anchorage Daily News


August 16, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Dozens of walrus carcasses missing their heads and valuable tusks have been discovered on western Alaska beaches in recent weeks, and federal wildlife authorities are trying to figure out whether they were killed illegally.

Investigators flying over Norton Sound beaches east of Nome counted 79 walrus carcasses in about a 40-mile stretch between Elim and Unalakleet, said Steve Oberholtzer, a special agent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage.

Large numbers of headless walruses have washed ashore in the area before, but this is the most investigators have seen in at least 10 years, Oberholtzer said.

Only Alaska Natives can legally hunt walruses for subsistence, but they must salvage a "substantial portion" of the animal, including the heart, liver, flippers and some red meat.

Headless walrus carcasses immediately raise questions about poaching. But the investigation does not necessarily mean anyone broke the law, Oberholtzer said. In at least one case, someone found four carcasses washed up on the beach and removed the tusks legally.

"No one has been charged, and we're not speculating wasteful take has occurred," he said. "We're on a fact-finding mission to discover what caused the death of these animals and whether it's legal."

Natives value walruses as a source of subsistence meat, said Vera Metcalf, head of the Eskimo Walrus Commission in Nome. The group works with the government to manage walrus populations and promote proper harvests. The tusks provide an important source of income in many cash-strapped villages for artists who sell ivory handicrafts, she said.

Natives shooting walruses usually follow the law, but not always, Oberholtzer said. They've occasionally been prosecuted for killing the animals just for their tusks.

"The overwhelming reason behind the wasteful take of walruses, when it occurs, is the value of the ivory," said Oberholtzer.

Anyone -- Native or not -- can legally collect the tusks of dead walruses they've found, but they must get a permit from Fish and Wildlife within 30 days after the tusks are removed, Oberholtzer said.

It's possible some animals died or were killed from a variety of causes and washed ashore with their tusks intact, and they were later removed, he said.

The last estimate in 1990 numbered Pacific walruses at about 200,000. Walrus biologists hope to release a new estimate based on aerial surveys next summer. They're not classified as threatened or endangered.

Residents from two Inupiat villages in the sound, where tusk ivory is considered a valuable commodity for carving, said they've never seen so many dead walruses washed ashore.

At least one person -- a state trooper -- legally collected tusks from walrus carcasses on shore earlier this summer.

Trooper Karl Erickson of Unalakleet, a village of about 700, said he was planning to harvest herring eggs from kelp in June but ended up collecting tusks from four dead walrues.

"Normally you'd find one, maybe two, but in one boat ride we found four," said Erickson. "I've never heard of that before."

Erickson is not investigating the carcasses. The case involves only federal investigators, Oberholtzer said.

Erickson said the four walruses he found had all been shot with at least a single bullet hole around the upper torso. Whoever shot them killed them, he said.

"I would not imply they were poached but with so many washing on the beach it makes eyebrows curl and makes you wonder," said Erickson.


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