Federal wildlife officials have identified the people responsible for killing some of the 25 walruses that were found dead on a remote Alaska shoreline in September, prosecutors said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Alaska, which announced the development on Friday, declined to name the suspects until charges are filed.
Officials said some of the carcasses found on the beach in Cape Lisburne more than 200 miles north of the Bering Strait may have been illegally shot, with some beheaded for their ivory. Twelve calves appeared to be among the dead.
Andrea Medeiros, a spokeswoman for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, told the Anchorage Daily News that the person who reported the carcasses said the animals "had been shot, and their heads had been taken."
Only Native Americans in Alaska can hunt and kill walruses. But under federal law, much of the carcass must be used to prevent so-called "head hunting."
Anyone can remove ivory and other parts from walruses found dead on a beach, however, certain rules must be followed.
Wildlife officials were reportedly notified of the dead walruses by someone connected to an Air Force radar station in the remote area of northwest Alaska, who provided photographic evidence.
The U.S. Attorney's Office has revealed little about the multi-agency investigation into the walrus carcasses, citing the need to "protect the integrity" of the process.
The discovery comes amid heightened concern about the effects of shrinking sea ice on arctic marine mammals, such as walruses and polar bears, which use the floating chunks to breed, rest, and hunt.
Walruses spend much of their time in the water hunting on the ocean floor for clams, snails and worms, but they require land or sea ice to rest, breed, and evade predators. Ice is especially useful for females and younger animals, which can’t swim as far as males in open water.
And earlier this summer, an estimated 35,000 walruses were seen "hauling out" en mass near Point Lay, Alaska, about eight hours by plane from Anchorage.