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As sea ice retreats, 5,000-6,000 walruses confirmed on Alaskan shore

An estimated 35,000 walruses are pictured are pictured hauled out on a beach near the village of Point Lay, Alaska, 700 miles northwest of Anchorage, in this September 2014 handout photo. REUTERS/Corey Accardo/NOAA/NMFS/AFSC/NMML/Handout via Reuters

Between 5,000 and 6,000 walruses have ‘hauled out’ onshore near the Alaskan village of Point Lay, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday. Wildlife biologist Jonathan Snyder told participants in a teleconference that that estimate was made last weekend. No new estimates have been made since, according to Leo Ferreira III, president of the native village’s tribal council, because stormy weather has prevented observers from going across to the barrier island where the walruses have come ashore since then.

It was the first confirmation of any figure for the haul-out, but experts at the conference said more walruses are milling offshore and the numbers are expected to grow. In the recent past, haul-outs have numbered in the tens of thousands, and last September, 35,000 walruses came ashore, driven by the same climate-change-related event — melting ice floes that give the walruses no place to rest at sea.

While the sight of so many walruses crowded onto the beach may be tempting for both tourists and members of the media, the speakers emphasized the importance of minimizing human disturbances, which can cause walruses to stampede into the water, often trampling and killing smaller members of their own herd in the process.

Ferreira  emphasized that  Point Lay — which has a population of only about 250 people — is not equipped to host so many visitors, and the community does not permit humans to go out to the beach unauthorized while the walruses are on shore. In fact, he says even residents of Point Lay, many of whom are subsistence hunters and rely on walrus for food, are not permitted to hunt the walrus while they’re hauled out on land.

Local officials are working with the Federal Aviation Administration to issue flight guidelines to pilots that will minimize disturbances from flyovers. Ferreira said the community has been especially upset by a recent flyover by photojournalist Gary Braasch, who shot and published photos of the haul-out this week. Mac Whisler, the Fish and Wildlife Service resident agent in charge, said officials are looking into whether the flight could have violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Braasch, interviewed earlier this week by email, said that he and his pilot stayed approximately a mile away from the massed walruses; that is the boundary usually issued to planes and helicopters in the case of a haul-out.

The experts believe the walruses will probably remain on shore throughout the month of September and into October, when sea ice usually begins refreezing. Restrictions will remain in place to protect the animals throughout that time.