This past weekend a mass of 35,000 walruses congregated on a remote Alaskan beach – and now authorities are concerned that the animals could stampede. This would put many of the animals at risk of death by trampling – especially juveniles. In response, the Federal Aviation Authority has re-routed flights, and the media, tourists and bush pilots have been asked to keep away from the site in an effort to not startle the animals. The animals are believed to have come ashore because arctic sea ice is currently at its sixth lowest level since satellite monitoring began in 1979.

Walrus haulout 2014

Masses of walruses have been observed near Point Lay, Alaska, since 2007, and mass haulouts of up to 45,000 walruses have also been reported on the Russian coast of the Chukchi Sea. Both the NOAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service blame the change in the animals’ behavior on decreasing late summer sea ice due to the effects of climate change. Walruses use floating sea ice to calve and as a base for foraging. However, when the ice retreats so far that it only exists over deeper water, the animals can no longer forage on the sea floor.

Related: 10,000 Walruses Come Ashore in Alaska as Arctic Sea Ice Declines

In 2009, over 130 juvenile walruses were believed trampled to death in a stampede near Point Lay. Mass stampede deaths have also been reported in Russia. In 2011, a survey of carcasses at a haulout site indicated that many of the animals had been crushed in a stampede. Both live and dead animals were also noted to have strange skin lesions and bleeding from the nose and mouth, but autopsies were unable to detect a virus or any other likely cause. Because walruses are quite skittish, despite their enormous size, the FAA is now asking pilots of planes in the area to fly above 2,000 feet, and helicopter pilots to keep above 3,000 feet. Media eager to capture footage of the haulout have also been asked to keep away.

NOAA scientists conducting a marine mammal aerial survey first spotted this year’s haulout on 13 September. Numbers have fluctuated since then, but on 27 September they had swelled to an estimated 35,000. Fifty carcasses were also spotted on the beach last week, and the USFWS, responsible for the protection of walruses, said that a team would soon be dispatched to the site to determine the cause of deaths.

Via The Guardian

Photos by NOAA Fisheries via Facebook and the NOAA Photo Library via Flickr; map by the National Snow and Ice Data Center