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The Interior Department has decided that global warming is threatening the Pacific walrus. But as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, the government has decided not to add it to the Endangered Species List, yet.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: The Interior Department is putting walruses in a kind of purgatory. They join some 250 animals and plants that deserve the protection of the Endangered Species List, but they aren't getting it.

Dr. ROSA MEEHAN (Supervisor, Marine Mammals Management. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service): Where walrus fall on this priority system is they're a little bit low on the totem pole, you might say.

SHOGREN: Rosa Meehan manages marine mammals in Alaska for the Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service. She says there's no question, walrus numbers will be reduced as sea ice declines in northern Alaska. But the government has limited money and uses it for species most likely to go extinct.

Meehan says the condition of walruses is less dire. That's because they live a long time and there are still lots of them. The Interior Department did list polar bears as a threatened species two years ago because of shrinking sea ice. Meehan says unlike polar bears, walruses don't need the ice to feed themselves.

Dr. MEEHAN: They can rest on land and go out and feed in the water and return to land. And so, because they have that ability to continue feeding even if there's not ice, that's a pretty dramatic difference between walruses and polar bears.

SHOGREN: But some biologists say melting sea ice threatens walruses even more than polar bears because walruses depend on sea ice for reproduction.

University of Virginia professor Carleton Ray has been studying them for 50 years.

Professor CARLETON RAY: (Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Virginia): The ice is disappearing. If they've got no ice, they've got to go on land. They go on land in the thousands. And that would seem like it's all right but it's not, because they get in these huge herds and if they are disturbed in some way, they tend to rush into the sea and they trample a lot of the animals. Some calves get killed.

SHOGREN: And it's a lot harder for walruses to feed themselves on land. Most of their food sources are in the water.

Two years ago, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the Interior Department to put the walrus on the Endangered Species List. Shaye Wolf is the group's climate science director. She's considering suing the department to make it move more quickly.

Ms. SHAYE WOLF (Climate Science Director, Center for Biological Diversity): Delaying protection for the walrus means that we increase the chances of losing the walrus forever.

SHOGREN: Nobody seems to like the decision. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski says it stands to hurt native Alaskans who hunt walruses. It could limit tourism, which is important to the state's economy. And it could jeopardize plans to explore for oil in the Chukchi Sea.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Independent, Alaska): It adds to the delay, it adds to the cost and it limits development.

SHOGREN: The Interior Department says it will keep close tabs on walruses, and it will review its decision every year. In the meantime, walruses are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News, Washington.

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