Endangered Species in Alaska

(This article, written by AFW’s Susan Hansen, will appear in the Sierra Borealis Newsletter)

The purpose of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is to conserve threatened and endangered species and their ecosystems. A species is considered threatened if it is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

Two Federal agencies, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), are responsible for maintaining lists of species that meet the definition of threatened or endangered under the ESA.  NMFS is responsible for maintaining the endangered species list for most marine species and managing these species once they are listed. The USFWS is responsible for maintaining the endangered species list for terrestrial and freshwater species, as well as three marine species: Polar Bear, Pacific Walrus, and Sea Otter, and for managing those species once they are listed. 

NMFS and USFWS must determine if any species is endangered because of any of the following factors:

-The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat of range; 

-Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;

-Disease or predation;

-The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms;

-Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

If a species is listed as endangered it is illegal to “take” (harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to do these things) that species.  Non-federal individuals, agencies, or organizations may be granted limited take through special permits with conservation plans. Adverse effects on listed species must be minimized and in some cases conservation efforts are required to offset the take.  (See Alaska Department of Fish and Game for these listings and definition of “Critical Habitat”.)


Trump Administration’s proposed rules will significantly weaken the Endangered Species Act

Last summer (July, 2018), under David Bernhardt (Secretary of Interior), the Department of Interior released a series of proposed changes to the ESA.  On August 12, 2019 the Trump Administration published the rule changes to the ESA in the Federal Register.

These changes include;

– allowing actions that gradually destroy listed species;

-depriving newly listed threatened species from receiving automatic protections; and

-including economic considerations in decisions that, until now have been purely based on scientific analysis.

These new rules would make it easier to remove species from the endangered list and weaken protections for newly listed threatened species. And for the first time, regulators would be allowed to conduct economic assessments-for instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat-when deciding whether a species warrants protection.  The removal of language that in the past prevented economic impacts from affecting whether or not a species qualifies as endangered is troublesome. This shifts the listing process away from being based solely on science, into one that includes the assessment of short term economic costs.Exam

One of Trump administration’s rules prohibits using “foreseeable” impacts of climate change from being considered when assessing the threats a species faces.  This prevents protections for species impacted by things like warming temperatures, sea level rise or melting sea ice in the foreseeable future. Examples of animals threatened by climate change in the “foreseeable ” future are the polar bear and ice-dependent seals.

The ESA has stood as a bedrock environmental law since Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1973.  The Endangered Species Act is widely popular among the public and remarkably successful in protecting imperiled wildlife. The ESA has been credited with the rebound of the bald eagle, the grizzly bear , the humpback whale and many other species of living throughout the US and in its waterways.  Trump’s rollbacks of the ESA regulations come when eminent scientists say we are facing a climate crisis, a loss of biological diversity and that of 8 million species that exist on the planet,  about ONE million species will go extinct in the next few decades.


Who benefits from weakening the endangered species act?

Extractive industries such as the oil and gas industry, the mining industry, the logging industry and the agribusiness industry  -all benefit from weakening the ESA regulations. So this is an effort by the Trump administration to get the Endangered Species Act out of the way of the extractive industries.  This is not a surprise. Many of Trump’s regulatory appointees are former lobbyists of extractive industries. David Bernhardt who is the Secretary of Interior was a lobbyist for the oil and gas industry,  He is the person who ultimately made the decision to roll back the Endangered Species Act protections.


Environmental and Animal  Protection groups are suing the Trump administration over their regulatory changes to the ESA

Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of several other environmental and animal  protection groups on August 21, 2019. These groups include The Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Parks Conservation Association, Wild Earth Guardians and the Humane Society of the United States.

This lawsuit alleges the Interior Department, U.S Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to disclose the negative environmental impacts of the new rules.  The lawsuit alleges the administration inserted new changes into the final rules that were never subject to public comment.


Endangered Species in Alaska  (from AK Dept. of Fish and Game)

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 (west of 144 degrees)


Threatened Species in Alaska

Green Sea turtle

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Northern Sea Otter ( SW AK population)

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

Polar Bear

Spectacled Eider

Steller’s Eider

Wood Bison

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