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Application of Endangered Species Act in Alaska a cause for concern?

Jill Burke
Steller sea lions are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo
Leatherback turtle.
Photo by Scott R. Benson, NMFS
Drawing of fur seal, sea lion and sea cow from Waxel's chart of Bering's voyage, 1741 in Frank Alfred Golder's BERING'S VOYAGES (Alaska Purchase Centennial Collection, ca. 1764-1967. ASL-P20-182)
Alaska State Library Alaska Purchase Centennial Collection
Short-tailed albatross male and egg on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo by Pete Leary/USFWS
North Pacific right whale.
NOAA photo
A fin whale.
Photo by Lori Mazzuca, NOAA
Scientists tagging a beluga whale in Cook Inlet near Anchorage.
NOAA photo
Wood bison in Canada.
Wikipedia photo
Sperm whale
NOAA photo
Blue whale
National Park Service photo
North Pacific right whale with calf.
NOAA photo
A humpback whale calf breaching off Hawaii.
HIHWNMS NOAA Fisheries Permit #782-1438
Bowhead whale
NOAA photo
Spectacled eiders are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Photo by Greg Balough/USFWS
Loggerhead Turtle escaping a net equipped with turtle excluder device (TED).
NOAA photo
The green sea turtle is listed as threatened under the endangered species act.
Photo by Andy Bruckner, NOAA
A polar bear.
Photo courtesy USGS

For nearly 40 years, at-risk animals in the United States have taken refuge in the force of federal law. Under the Endangered Species Act, passed into law on Dec. 28, 1973, protection of animals facing severe decline became a federal mandate.

While some Alaska species have recovered through protection, others were hunted to extinction before laws existed to safeguard them. Species that are gone forever include the Spectacled Cormorant and the Steller Sea Cow, a large marine mammal similar to manatees.

On Wednesday the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Alaska region celebrated the act's anniversary with a brief "Happy Birthday!" message on its website, and credited the law with the successful recovery of a handful of animals in Alaska.

But nearly four decades after the act became law it's become a source of ongoing and sometimes escalating tensions between the state of Alaska and federal regulators.

De-listing species is something Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell likes to see. Regulating more animals under the Endangered Species Act isn't. He's distrustful of the process and has long questioned whether animals up for review truly meet the criteria. "It's easier to prevent a problem than to correct it. To this end we're manning the watchtower and looking for risks of unwarranted attempts to bring a species under the ESA regulatory umbrella," he said in a November speech to the Resource Development Council.

Parnell isn't so much against protecting needy species as much as he is against federal oversight, which Parnell sees as an obstacle to resource development. He wants the state to be more proactive in developing and carrying out its own plans to help imperiled animals rebound. "If we adopt our own appropriate protective measures, we are less likely to see ESA-based mandates. So we incorporate protections of species and habitats into our state permits and licenses, notably in oil and gas exploration and development activities," he told attendees at the development council's November meeting.

When Parnell disagrees with federal actions, he's turned to the courts to try to block them, as with habitat for beluga whales in Cook Inlet and polar bears in the Arctic. In April, when critical habitat was designated in Cook Inlet, Parnell accused the federal government of "locking up Alaska land from development," adding that the federal decisions to list the beluga whales and provide them with habitat protections "destroy jobs and opportunities for economic development."

Testifying before Congress in October, Douglas Vincent-Lang, a special assistant to the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, called the act "well intentioned" but expressed concern that recent applications of it were based soley on "speculated risks." Speaking to the House Committee for Science, Space and Technology, Vincent-Lang reinforced the state's disappointment in federal decision makers who based listing decisions on future projected declines instead of current population numbers, the most notable of which is the polar bear. "There is little evidence that polar bears are threatened with extinction now or within the near term foreseeable future," he said.

In particular, Vincent-Lang disagrees with the methodology that predicts population declines based on climate change. In the case of polar bears, projected sea ice loss also led to the designation of a vast region in Alaska's arctic as critical habitat, the same region under which sits one of the largest potential oil and gas deposits in the United States. Increasingly, he said, there is concern that the act is being used as a land management tool instead of one that seeks to promote species recovery.

"Ultimately, what species could not be listed due to future threats such as climate change," he asked the committee.

In addition to the polar bear decision, Vincent-Lang noted disagreement with management decisions on the Cook Inlet beluga whale, Steller sea lions, and northern sea otters. For all of these, scientific data amassed by the state shows species stability that was overlooked in the federal decisions, he said, urging Congress to consider legislative reforms.

Yet for all of the legal wrangling that goes on, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages several species protected by the endangered species act, sees more good than bad in the act.

"Here in Alaska, the act has contributed to the recovery of the Aleutian cackling goose, the American peregrine falcon, and the Arctic peregrine falcon," said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the agency's office in Anchorage. "Nationally it has recovered a number of species and, more important, saved many more from extinction. Species don't reach the point at which they need the protection overnight, and so recovering a species can be a long and difficult process. But the act works, and America, and the world, would be poorer today without it."

Fourteen species, including one plant, in Alaska are currently listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. They are: Aleutian Shield Fern, Blue Whale, Bowhead Whale, Cook Inlet Beluga Whale, Eskimo Curlew, Fin Whale, Humpback Whale, Leatherback Sea Turtle, North Pacific Right Whale, Sei Whale, Short-tailed Albatross, Sperm Whale, Steller Sea Lion, and the Wood Bison.

Eight species are listed as threatened under the act. They are: Green Sea Turtle, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Northern Sea Otter, Olive Ridley Sea Turtle, Polar Bear, Spectacled Eider, Steller Sea Lion, and the Steller's Eider.

Those under review for listing include the olive-sided flycatcher, Kittlitz's Murrelet, Yellow-billed Loon, Pacific Walrus, Queen Charlotte Goshawk, Bearded Seal, Black-footed Albatross, Pacific Herring, and the Ringed Seal.

Species listed on the Endangered Species Act are protected against sport and commercial hunting and development or other federal activities that might harm them or the places they live. 

In discussing the rapid decline and ultimate extinction of the Spectacled Cormorant, hunted for food and feathers, and the Steller's Sea Cow, hunted for food and its skin (which was used to make boats), the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has said the plight of these animals shows how important the endangered species act is. "Without the steadfast commitment to species protection embodied in the act and aggressive protection programs, entire species can disappear when the needs of people come face to face with the needs of individual species," Fish and Game says on its website.

(NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect the full list of endangered, threatened and other at-risk species identified by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.)

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com