Thursday, January 2, 2014

Dogs, Once Hunters of Ringed Seals and Polar Bears, Now Help Protect Them

Dogs have been trained to monitor the status of endangered species, including desert tortoises, Siberian tigers, and numerous other animals, but these functions were usually developed without any legal requirement.  In the oil drilling areas of Alaska, however, regulations recommend, in the case of polar bears, and require, in the case of ringed seals, that their habitats, particularly breeding areas, be identified by trained detection dogs. Given that the skill of dogs in finding seals and bears was originally honed to hunt these animals, their use for conservation is a dramatic change in purpose. 

National Marine Fisheries Service 

Map of Alaska Showing Beaufort Sea and Oil Pipeline (Wikipedia)
The Marine Mammal Protection Act, signed into law by President Nixon in 1972, codified in Title 16, Chapter 31 of the U.S. Code, allows for the incidental but not intentional taking of marine mammals in activities other than commercial fishing if certain findings are made and regulations are issued.  Authorization is to be granted if the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), an office within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the Department of Commerce, finds the taking will have a negligible impact on the species or stock, will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the species or stocks for subsistence uses, and if the permissible methods of taking and requirements pertaining to the mitigation, monitoring, and reporting of such taking are set forth.  

On December 12, the NMFS issued final regulations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to govern the unintentional taking of marine mammals incidental to the operation of offshore oil and gas facilities in the U.S. Beaufort Sea, along the northern coast of Alaska.  The request for the regulations came from BP (formerly British Petroleum).  The regulations authorize the incidental taking of marine mammals for drilling operations in the Beaufort Sea from January 2014 to January 2019. 

Marine Mammals Affected by BP Operations

BP requested authorization to take six mammal species incidental to operation of the Northstar development in the Beaufort Sea for five years.  Northstar Island, a man-made facility consisting created for drilling operations, was completed in 2001.  From 2014 through 2019, BP intends to continue drilling operations, though not on the scale conducted in earlier years.  These operations will have both acoustic and non-acoustic effects on marine mammals in the area resulting from “vehicles operating on the ice, vessels, aircraft, generators, production machinery, gas flaring, and camp operations.” Animals that will be affected are:
  • Bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus)
  • Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus)
  • Beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas)
  • Ringed seals (Phoca hispida)
  • Bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus)
  • Spotted seals (Phoca largha)
  • Polar bear (Ursus maritimus)
  • Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens)
BP estimates that it will take about five ringed seals annually by injury or mortality. The other species will be “harassed,” but less affected than the ringed seals.  Walruses and polar bears are managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service (Department of the Interior), so were not considered in the rules of the Department of Commerce. 

Southern Limit of the Ringed Seal Range (Heptner)
Ringed and bearded seals are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.  There are estimated to be, in total, about a quarter million ringed seals and 155,000 bearded seals.  Certain populations of gray, beluga, and killer whales and spotted seals are listed as “endangered.”  There are estimated to be about 19,000 gray whales and 39,000 beluga whales.  According to the regulatory preamble:

“Ringed seals are year-round residents in the Beaufort Sea and are anticipated to be the most frequently encountered species in the project area. Bowhead whales are anticipated to be the most frequently encountered cetacean species in the project area; however, their occurrence is not anticipated to be year-round. The most common time for bowheads to occur near Northstar is during the fall migration westward through the Beaufort Sea, which typically occurs from late August through October each year.” 

Ringed seals build lairs under the snowpack (“subnivean lairs”) in the Beaufort Sea in the spring months.  Specifically as to how seals might be injured, the preamble states:

“Potential non-acoustic effects could result from the physical presence of personnel, structures and equipment, construction or maintenance activities, and the occurrence of oil spills. In winter, during ice road construction, and in spring, flooding on the sea ice may displace some ringed seals along the ice road corridor. There is a small chance that a seal pup might be injured or killed by on-ice construction or transportation activities. A major oil spill is unlikely and, if it occurred, its effects are difficult to predict.”

Ringed Seal Pup (NOAA)
Ringed seals give birth in late March and April, and at that time of year young pups may get close to BP facilities.  BP is to notify NMFS within 24 hours if more than five ringed seals are killed annually by BP’s activities. 

Use of Detection Dogs Prior to Road Construction

The regulations issued at the request of BP state (50 CFR 217.144(a)(1)) that “to reduce the taking of ringed seals to the lowest level practicable, BP must begin winter construction activities, principally ice roads, as soon as possible once weather and ice conditions permit such activity.” Also:

“Any ice roads or other construction activities that are initiated after March 1, in previously undisturbed areas in waters deeper than 10 ft (3 m), must be surveyed, using trained dogs in order to identify and avoid ringed seal structures by a minimum of 492 ft (150 m).” 

In a separate provision, the final regulations state:

“After March 1, trained dogs must be used to detect seal lairs in previously undisturbed areas that may be potentially affected by on-ice construction activity, if any. Surveys for seal structures should be conducted to a minimum distance of 492 ft (150 m) from the outer edges of any disturbance.”

As to road construction, the preamble explains how the use of dogs becomes important: 

“In order to reduce impacts to ringed seal construction of birth lairs, BP must begin winter construction activities (e.g., ice road construction) on the sea ice as early as possible once weather and ice conditions permit such activities. Any ice road or other construction activities that are initiated after March 1 in previously undisturbed areas in waters deeper than 10 ft (3 m) must be surveyed, using trained dogs, in order to identify and avoid ringed seal structures by a minimum of 492 ft (150 m). If dog surveys are conducted, trained dogs shall search all floating sea ice for any ringed seal structures. Those surveys shall be done prior to the new proposed activity on the floating sea ice to provide information needed to prevent injury or mortality of young seals. Additionally, after March 1 of each year, activities should avoid, to the greatest extent practicable, disturbance of any located seal structure.”

It is also stated (50 CFR 217.146): 

“If BP initiates significant on-ice activities (e.g., construction of new ice roads, trenching for pipeline repair, or projects of similar magnitude) in previously undisturbed areas after March 1, trained dogs, or a comparable method, will be used to search for seal structures….  If specific mitigation and monitoring are required for activities on the sea ice initiated after March 1 (requiring searches with dogs for lairs), during the operation of strong sound sources (requiring visual observations and shutdown procedures), or for the use of new sound sources that have not previously been measured, then a preliminary summary of the activity, method of monitoring, and preliminary results will be submitted within 90 days after the cessation of that activity.”

This is the only reference to a “comparable method.”  Other references to dogs make their use mandatory by BP. 

Hunting Seals with Dogs  

The first use of dogs in finding ringed seals was not for preservation, but for hunting.  Dogs pulled hunters on sleds to locations where seals could be caught, but they could also find seals that were below the surface.  A 1976 treatise on mammals of the Soviet Union (Heptner et al., published in English in 1996) describes how the seals were caught in Russia:

“In winter-spring, much before the ringed seal emerges onto the ice floe surface, the hunters set out with dogs in various regions, most often in the Baltics and in Lake Ladoga. The dogs help them locate the seal's air hole or lair with pups inside. Often, using the pups as bait, the hunters attempt to catch the suckling mother.”
Returning to Camp after Hunting, Dogs Pulling Parts of Seal (Stefansson)

According to Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1913): “By the aid of their dogs the Eskimo find these breathing-holes of the seals underneath the snow that hides them in winter, and spear the animals as they rise for air.”  The photograph from Stefansson’s book shows men and dogs returning from a seal hunt, each dog dragging a segment of the seal.  Stefansson adds the following detail regarding several groups of Eskimos that use dogs:

“The Coronation Gulf and Victoria Island Eskimo live almost exclusively on seals in the winter. They find the seal's breathing-hole by the aid of dogs, and wait at the hole for the seal to come up to breathe, when they kill it with a spear. In all districts the Eskimo depend largely upon the blubber of the seal for their fatty food, even the inland Alaskans being obliged to trade for a few ‘pokes’ of blubber oil annually. The summer water boots of the Eskimo are practically always made of sealskin, usually with soles of the large bearded seal's skin or the skin of the white whale. The seal oil is usually kept in pokes - bags made of the skin of the seal removed intact and turned so as to be impervious to oil. Seals killed in summer usually sink quickly, but after the last of September a majority of the seals shot float until they can be recovered. An average seal of this species weighs from 125 to 175 pounds. A very large male shot at Cape Parry, December 12th, 1910, measured 65 inches in length and greatest girth 54 inches, weight about 200 pounds.”

Seals could also be taken when outside of their holes, as described by Charles Francis Hall (1865):

Smile Capturing a Seal (Hall)
"In an instant the dogs were off toward the prey, drawing the sledge after them at a marvelous rate. The seal for a moment acted as if frightened, and kept on the ice a second or two too long, for just as he plunged, 'Smile' the noblest-looking, best leader, seal, and bear dog I ever saw, caught him by the tail and flippers. The seal struggled violently, and so did dog Smile, making the sledge to caper about merrily; but in a moment more the other dogs laid hold, and aided in dragging the seal out of his hole on the ice, when Smile took it wholly in charge. The prize was secured this time wholly by the dogs.”

The drawing from Hall’s book shows Smile catching the seal's tail. 

Finding Seal Lairs for Science and Conservation Purposes

The use of dogs trained to find lairs of ringed seals has, in recent years, been particularly associated with the research of Dr. Brendan P. Kelly of the University of Alaska, and with students and associates who have worked with him. In the 1970s various research groups used trained dogs to locate subnivian seal structures.  The dogs were trained to follow the seal odor to its source and indicate the location of the structure by digging in the snow above it.  In 1982, Dr. Kelly (1986) used Clyde, a Labrador retriever to locate 157 seal structures, finding an average of 0.53 per kilometer searched.  Those structures could be just breathing holes or could be lairs, with or without pups.  By searching areas two or three times under optimal scenting conditions, the team believed that virtually all seal holes were found.  In more recent research, Dr. Kelly (2010) has also been able to determine home ranges of ringed seals.

Polar Bear Hunt (Hall)
Polar Bear Dens

As already mentioned, polar bears and walruses may also be affected by drilling and construction activities in Alaska and are protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Department of the Interior.  Under 50 CFR 18.117(a)(5)(iii)(A) and 18.128(a)(2)(ii), oil companies carrying out onshore exploration activities in known or suspected polar bear denning habitats “must make efforts to locate occupied polar bear dens within and near proposed areas of operation, utilizing appropriate tools, such as forward looking infrared (FLIR) imagery and/or polar bear scent-trained dogs.”  For a description of dogs being used to find polar bear dens, see Kirschhoffer (2013).  For a polar bear behavior study that was assisted by dogs, see Smith et al. (2007). 


This is a case where the hunting value of dogs was turned into a conservation value for two species whose breeding habitats are being threatened from many quarters.  Not only was the value of dogs recognized by researchers, but subagencies within the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Interior have recognized the importance of dogs by requiring that oil exploration and drilling operations use dogs to determine where to conduct construction and exploration activities and how to minimize deaths to threatened populations.   Requiring, as opposed to just recommending, the use of trained dogs makes the rules applying to BP unique.

For suggestions and corrections, I must thank Kingsbury Paker, who once worked on the pipeline, Yva Momatiuk and John Eastcott, who lived for a time among the Inuit, and Eric Krieger who recently restored a classic dog sled. 


Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Taking and Importing Marine Mammals; Taking Marine Mammals Incidental to Operation of Offshore Oil and Gas Facilities in the U.S. Beaufort Sea.  RIN 0648-AY63, 78 Fed. Reg. 75488 (December 12, 2013).  

Snow Village at Oopungnewing, Showing Seal Catch and Dog Pulling Young Seal (Hall)

Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Endangered and Threatened Wildlife; 90-Day Finding on a Petition to List Multiple Species and Subpopulations of Marine Mammals as Threatened or Endangered under the Endangered Species Act. RIN 0648-XC924, 79 Fed. Reg. 9880 (February 21, 2014) (describing how feral dogs on Isabela Island have decimated populations of Galapagos fur seals, both by eating them and by passing diseases to them).

Department of the Interior: Fish and Wildlife Service.  Marine Mammals; Incidental Take During Specified Activities.  RIN 1018-AX32, 76 Fed Reg. 47010 (August 3, 2011).

Hall, Charles Francis (1865). Arctic Researches and Life Among the Esquimaux.  New York: Harper & Brothers. 

Heptner, V.G., Chapskii, K.K., Arsen’ev, V.A., and Sokolov, V.E. (1976, translated into English, 1996).  Pinnipeds and Toothed Whales. In Mammals of the Soviet Union, II(3) (quotation at 259).

Kelly, B.P., Badajos, O.H., Kunnasranta, M., et al. (2010). Seasonal Home Ranges and Fidelity to Breeding Sites among Ringed Seals.  Publications, Agencies and Staff of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Paper 168.

Kelly, B.P., Bengtson, J.L., Boveng, P.L., et al. (2010). Status Review of the Ringed Seal (Phoca hispida), NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-212), 128. 

Kelly, B.P., Quakenbush, L.T., and Rose, J.R. (1986). Ringed Seal Winter Ecology and Effects of Noise Disturbance, Final Report: Outer Continental Shelf Environmental Assessment Program, Research Unit 32. 

Kirschhoffer, B.J. (2013).  Den-Sniffing Dogs, on website of Polar Bears International (posted March 13, 2013).

Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, PL 92-522 (October 21, 1972).

Smith, T. S., Partridge, S. T. Amstrup, S.C., and Schliebe, S. (2007).  Post-Den Emergence Behavior of Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) in Northern Alaska.  Arctic, 60(2), 187-194.

Stefansson, Vilhjalmur (1913). My Life with the Eskimo.   New York: Macmillan Co.

1 comment:

  1. In the 1960's when it became apparent that oil might be extracted from the north of Alaska,
    various environmental groups along with Native Alaskan groups began to lobby in opposition to that possibility. One might think that the cost of such opposition is measured in dollars but the actual cost is measured in delay over time which is very unpredictable. As a consequence of these legal skirmishes over the last sixty plus years, oil companies have learned to be more proactive when seeking to add new territory to their activities Today part of ongoing research for an oil company is research into ways to implement Federal regulations that meet environmental criticism before it becomes open warfare. The fact that dogs have been chosen to help mediate such criticism comes in part because dogs are integral to Native Alaskan life but also because dogs have become increasingly important within the legal framework of federal and state regulations governing a wide variety of human activity. Thus no one is particularly surprised to find that dogs will be used to help protect the environment and the situation is not only accepted as normal but as a perfect example of expedient use of means at hand. One more step into the future of man's best friend.