LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
Mention the effect of melting ice caps on arctic sea life and most people think of polar bears, not the Pacific walrus. Earlier this month, tens of thousands of them crowded onto a sandy stretch of beach on Alaska's northwest coast. The animals swam to shore after the sea ice they usually live on melted, a phenomenon that was unheard of five years ago.
Reporter Annie Feidt of the Alaska Public Radio Network has this profile of a government biologist who's trying to figure out what the dramatic change in behavior could mean for the walrus.
ANNIE FEIDT: When thousands of walrus are resting close by, it's important not to attract attention to yourself. So on a foggy evening earlier this month, Anthony Fischbach is creeping towards the animals, tape recorder in hand. He's dressed in camouflage to blend into the greenish brown landscape.
Mr. ANTHONY FISCHBACH (Wildlife Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey): We're crawling on our knees now through grass up towards the haul out. The haul out's a bit smaller today, they must be out at sea. There's several thousand walrus here, maybe 5,000. I'm coming up to the edge of the grass, where they've squished it down with their bodies. But now, most of them are down in the sand.
FEIDT: The animals are packed shoulder to shoulder on a beach below. Fischbach calls it a wall of walrus.
(Soundbite of walrus sounds)
Mr. FISCHBACH: I'm surprised about one thing - essentially all the animals here are adult females. There's a few adult males in there, here and there, and some young males. But they're essentially all adult females. When you look at a group of adult female walruses, you expect to see about one of the three with newborn, with yearling calves.
FEIDT: The vast majority of walrus in the Chukchi each summer are females who fatten up on clams that populate the sea floor. They need lots of protein to nurse their young. This time of year, they should be foraging from the sea ice, floating over the productive waters of the continental shelf. Instead, they're stuck on land.
Mr. FISCHBACH: I only see a very small number of yearling calves. That makes me wonder what's happening with the calves.
FEIDT: Fischbach suspects walrus moms have a harder time keeping track of their pups once the sea ice disappears. Feeding the pups is also more difficult. From land, more animals have to compete for fewer resources that are farther away.
Fischbach has been attaching satellite radio tags on the walrus to try to figure out how the animals are coping. He deploys the tags with a crossbow.
(Soundbite of an arrow shot)
FEIDT: The tag is a hockey puck sized transmitter that embeds into a thick piece of walrus skin. Back in his Anchorage office, Fischbach can download hourly updates on the animals. He calls them Walrus diaries.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FISCHBACH: It's a simple diary. I rested. I got in the water. I fed. You know, and it all gets repeated in various combinations.
(Soundbite of laughter)
FEIDT: But that basic information is key to helping biologists figure out how walrus are coping with the dramatic changes in the Arctic Ocean.
Mr. FISCHBACH: The big thing we're trying to do is try to understand what it costs to walrus to make a living when they're stuck on shore, versus what it costs them to make a living when they're offshore on these small pans of ice, or on the pack ice out in the middle of the Chukchi Sea.
FEIDT: The information is especially important as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides whether the species needs protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Chad Jay is a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. He just released a report on the status of walrus.
Dr. CHAD JAY (Biologist, U.S. Geological Survey): I think it's a tough one because walruses are different than, say, polar bears in that, you know, polar bears have a real tough time when they're on shore. But walruses are able to come to shore for periods of time and still make a living, although they could be stressed.
FEIDT: The question is whether that stress will be substantial enough to threaten the animals with extinction. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expecting to make a decision on whether to list the walrus in January.
For NPR News, I'm Annie Feidt in Anchorage.