The endangered species law is being used to gain control over landscapes and seascapes rather than to protect species, according to the Alaska wildlife official who works on state responses to federal species listings.
"We do not believe Congress intended the act to be used in this manner," said Doug Vincent-Lang, repeating testimony he gave to a congressional committee earlier this year.
Vincent-Lang and other state officials discussed at a forum Tuesday how the Endangered Species Act has affected Alaska and how it could be reformed. No representatives of the environmental organizations that have successfully petitioned to list Alaska species were invited to speak.
The state in 2008 was unable to block the listing of polar bears as a threatened species and unsuccessfully sued to have the designation overturned. The state is appealing.
Vincent-Lang said polar bears, despite healthy and stable numbers, were listed based on speculative risks of what might happen to the animals as summer sea ice declines off Alaska's coast. Models projecting sea ice loss remain untested, he said, and a system that lists animals as a precautionary measure is flawed.
"Predictions of species responses based solely on projected changes in the availability of suitable habitat are likely to be inaccurate because they fail to account for important processes that potentially influence extinction," he said.
Declining habitat, he said, may not correlate to a decrease in numbers unless polar bears were at maximum capacity within their range.
Rebecca Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity, which wrote the original petition to get polar bears listed, said the state's opposition to the Endangered Species Act "clearly shows how close the state's ties are to the resource extraction industry."
She said she wasn't surprised the center or other environmental groups weren't invited to speak.
"The Endangered Species Act is a result of Americans deciding we want to make it a priority to protect species in peril, and it works as designed," Noblin said in a phone interview after the forum. "The state is deciding it's more politically expedient to be against protecting species even when that means being against the best available science," she said.
Vincent-Lang said that based on the polar bear precedent, the National Marine Fisheries Service has proposed to list ringed seals, the main prey of polar bears. Alaska opposes the listing because ringed seals number between 3 million and 7 million animals.
"We believe that there should be a requirement that a population is in a state of decline before a listing is made," he said.
Vincent-Lang said Congress should reform endangered species law by giving states equal deference in listing decisions rather than single federal agencies with biologists who might have agendas.
Species should only be listed, he said, if the underlying cause can be addressed by the law.
"This comes back to the polar bear," Vincent-Lang said. "If climate change is it, and the (Fish and Wildlife) Service says it's not going to regulate climate change, don't list it under the ESA."