Cook Inlet walrus not dead after all

Posted: Monday, October 08, 2001

SOLDOTNA (AP) -- ''Wally'' the walrus apparently is not dead after all.

It was thought the much-beloved walrus of Cook Inlet had died and was decapitated and his tusks taken. But reports of his death appear to have been premature.

Bob Gill, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was out doing a bird count Saturday when he and his pilot saw a walrus lazing on the beach at low tide near Drift River -- just where Wally would have been.

''The walrus either has been resurrected with a head or there's more than one in the Inlet,'' Gill said. ''It's alive and well.''

Other pilots and commercial fishermen also saw the fat walrus Saturday, sparking excited phone calls and cries of joy. Wally has lived in the area for at least 15 years. In that time, he has loafed into a lot of people's hearts.

''It's like having a pet,'' said Ron Wilds, a commercial fisherman whose setnet site is one of Wally's favorite haulouts. ''I'm so happy. Relieved is perhaps a better word.''

About a week and a half ago, pilot Bob Priewe told workers at the Drift River oil terminal that he'd seen the body of a walrus that had washed ashore. His overflights indicated it was headless. Hunters sometimes kill walruses and take just the head to acquire the valuable ivory tusks, which is illegal.

Drift River workers, who viewed Wally as a mascot, assumed the worst. They reported Priewe's findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Sept. 27.

But at least three people reported seeing Wally on Saturday, hauled out on his favorite sand bar at low tide. They were sure it wasn't another walrus.

''No, it's Wally,'' Wilds said.

Wilds' father, Ron, was working on the fishing site's cabin Saturday and called his son with the news.

''He told us Wally crawled back up on the sand hill. It's him,'' Randy Wilds said. ''This other one, who knows, maybe it washed in from far out.''

One of Wally's tusks is longer than the other, and the Wilds family has never seen other walruses haul out on that sand bar.

Walruses, 1- to 2-ton relatives of Steller sea lions, are not native to Cook Inlet. About 200,000 of them range between the Bering and Chukchi seas.

Wally is believed to have arrived in the Inlet as a juvenile in the mid-1980s with a group of four or five others, including his mother. Most left. His mother was reportedly shot. But Wally stayed on and has since become an institution. Walruses can live up to 40 years.

Just about anyone who has spent any time on the west side of the Inlet seems to have a story about the walrus. Wilds said he once took a nap on the warm beach sand only to wake up with Wally about 10 feet away. ''I'd look over, and he's dozing,'' he said.

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