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Authorities investigate death of Western Cook Inlet's resident walrus

Posted: Thursday, October 04, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A solitary Pacific walrus that lived in Cook Inlet since the early 1980s was hardly lonely. For a generation, the whiskered giant would wave a flipper at passing fishing boats and allow thrilled visitors to touch him and pose next to him for snapshots as he sunned himself.

''He's been the mascot not only of our place, but pretty much the west side of the Inlet,'' said Curtis Pennington, utility operator at Cook Inlet Pipe Line Co.'s Drift River oil terminal.

But Wally, or ''Faith'' as some called him because of his devotion to certain haulouts, has died.

He was last been seen about three weeks ago, hanging around the Drift River oil loading platform, where tankers dock to fill up with Inlet crude. He would scrape its pilings for mussels.

Bob Priewe, an Anchorage pilot who flies workers and supplies to oil company work camps in his Cessna 206, broke the bad news late last week.

He'd seen Wally's body from the air for a couple of days. It had washed ashore between McArthur River and Middle River, he said.

Whether Wally died from natural causes or a bullet was unclear. But the morning after Priewe first saw the carcass, it was obvious somebody had landed a small plane he said. And the walrus's head -- along with its valuable ivory tusks -- were gone.

Priewe said he saw tell-tale gouges in the sand made by the balloon tires and tail drag typical of a Piper Cub near the carcass.

Cook Inlet Pipe Line workers notified the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last week.

Walruses are protected from hunting by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt them as long as the hunt is not wasteful. So-called ''head hunting'' for ivory is illegal.

Officers with the Service's law enforcement division were waiting for this week's rain and winds to diminish so they can fly out to investigate the carcass, said special agent Wally Soroka.

By this point, it has been partially eaten by bears and other animals, according to pilot Priewe. But investigators may yet be able to learn something from the body and check for any nearby hunting camps, Soroka said.

If a walrus dies of natural causes, its ivory becomes fair game for anyone to harvest, Soroka pointed out. But the parts must be reported to the Fish and Wildlife Service within 30 days.

Anyone caught illegally hunting walruses faces a maximum penalty of $100,000 and/or six months in jail. People who fail to register found ivory also can be ticketed, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Walruses -- one- to two-ton, tusked relatives of Steller sea lions -- are normally found in the Bering and Chukchi seas between Alaska and Russia. About 200,000 of them live there.

By comparison, the Inlet's walrus population held steady at one for at least a decade.

''It's just a little bit out of their range,'' said Jonathan Snyder, a wildlife biologist with the Wildlife Service's walrus program. ''I can't say for certain, but this is the only known documented sighting in Cook Inlet.''

Snyder said he suspected the walrus swam out of Bristol Bay and through False Pass. Maybe Wally didn't realize his mistake, and started migrating northwest up the coastline and wound up in the Inlet.

Bush pilots, biologists and commercial fishermen say they first saw a family of walruses -- perhaps four or five -- appear at the northern tip of Kalgin Island in the early 1980s.

''Most of them disappeared, but two of them stayed and this one was a young walrus. It was there with its mother,'' said Carolyn Snowder of Kenai, whose family has fished on Kalgin Island for 43 years. ''They would both hang around every summer. Then, within three or four years, somebody shot and killed the female. But that one there, the young one, he's been back every year.''

A walrus can live up to 40 years.

Snowder and her fishing neighbors nicknamed the walrus ''Faith'' because he faithfully returned to a large slab of rock at the northwest end of Kalgin Island each summer.

Although there is some debate about the walrus's gender, Snowder had close views of him for years and is convinced it was male.

In the last five years, the walrus spent more time over by the Drift River oil terminal, where he was dubbed ''Wally.'' He would drowse on the exposed Inlet beach at low tide and had no apparent qualms when oil workers stopped by for snapshots, said Pennington, the Cook Inlet Pipe Line crewman.

''He's been around forever, and it was always the big thing to get your picture taken with Wally,'' he said. ''Our main concern, of course, is to try to find the individual responsible and bring them to justice. A number of people are quite upset about it.''



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