Twenty-five walrus, including up to a dozen calves, have been found dead on a beach about 40 miles north of Point Hope.
Federal wildlife officials are investigating a possible criminal slaughter of the protected marine mammals.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says they received an email about the walrus deaths last week. The carcasses were found just off of Cape Lisburne, not far from a small manned Air Force radar station now serving as the base for the federal wildlife agency’s investigation.
Many of the animals were found headless, their ivory tusks apparently harvested, and locals say some carcasses were found riddled with bullet holes.
“We have sent a couple of officers out there to Cape Lisburne to investigate,” Andrea Medeioros with USFWS said Friday.
Federal laws limit walrus hunting to Alaska Native subsistence users, but Medeioros said the fact that some of the animals’ tusks were harvested—along with their oosiks, the prized walrus penis bone—doesn’t necessarily mean they were killed illegally.
“We can’t say with any certainty what … the cause of death here was,” she said. “These animals, from the photos, do appear to have their heads taken off, but we can’t make any assumptions that that’s why they were killed, if they were in fact killed. You know, people can take the heads if they find a dead walrus on the beach.”
Hunting walrus purely for ivory—and not harvesting the animal’s meat—is illegal under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Steve Oomittuk is a subsistence whale and walrus hunter in Point Hope. He said bad ice conditions led to a poor spring walrus harvest this year, which makes him and others in the community angry to see good walrus go to waste.
“This kind of stuff, we don’t tolerate,” he said, noting he and others in Point Hope don’t know much about the still-ongoing investigation. “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 we find out what exactly happened.”
He said the idea of an accidental death and a subsequent harvest seems unlikely. “If they have gunshot wounds and everything, and the heads were gone, then someone’s doing something that should not ever be done.”
The Eskimo Walrus Commission—based out of Nome but with a commission member in Point Hope—is working jointly with the Fish and Wildlife on the investigation.