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Arctic hunters aren't all celebrating 40-year-old Endangered Species Act

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
In effect for 40 years, the Endangered Species Act has brought both benefits and challenges to Alaska and the Arctic, where a number of species, including the polar bear, are listed as threatened or endangered. Terry Debruyne/USFWS

Last month, the Endangered Species Act turned 40 to much fanfare and publicity. But not everyone is celebrating.

Four decades ago, President Richard Nixon sealed the deal with the aim of protecting and saving threatened and endangered plants and animals.

To its credit, it has done just that. Of the 2,000 or so species that have been listed, just 10 have gone extinct.

“From my perspective as a scientist, conservationist and a hunter, this is a powerful and important piece of legislation to help recover plants and animals at risk of extinction,” said Robert Suydam, senior wildlife biologist with the North Slope Borough.

But the Endangered Species Act has additional implications for those living in the Arctic. Scientists and hunters alike can appreciate what the act stands for, and some have grown uneasy over the years with the ever-present possibility of more listings and thus more red tape.

Suydam cited the bowhead whale as an example of a species that was on the list and marked as endangered but has made a comeback. Alaska Natives have been hunting bowhead for centuries; they remain an important part of subsistence culture and a main food staple.

The Endangered Species Act provides an exemption for Alaska Natives when it comes to marine mammals, Suydam said. In the past 40 years, bowhead populations have rebounded and done incredibly well, Suydam said. The most recent population count, done in 2011, was about 17,000 bowheads.

With well-managed hunting practices, good management and mitigation of oil and gas exploration they recovered, he said.

The success of bowhead populations is one triumph for the act. But recently, the boundaries of the act have gotten a little muddy.

With each potential new recruit to the Endangered Species Act, additional pressure is put on Alaska hunters, including those on the North Slope. The groups and individuals involved in the process are consumed with red tape, paperwork, and occasionally lawsuits.

“One of the downsides of all this activity to petition new species has meant that the agencies have had to put more of their resources, including people’s time, into addressing these petitions for listing and the legal action associated with them,” Suydam said. “Less and less resources (are being used) for collecting information and implementing management strategies that are meaningful. It seems like the ESA is being used to try and regulate greenhouse gases.”

For example, polar bears are listed as vulnerable on the act’s list but not necessarily due to declining populations. Instead, it’s due to the possible threat to the bears’ habitat -- sea ice. The changing criteria for deciphering an animal’s fate is becoming more and more counterproductive, causing concern among hunters, Suydam said.

“There’s an increasing burden on North Slope communities because of all these listings,” he said.

Polar bears were listed as a threatened species in 2008 under the Endangered Species Act due to rapid demise of sea ice habitat. Then, in November 2010, officials designated 120 million acres of coastal areas, sea ice and barrier islands as critical habitat for polar bears.

Most species have been listed as a direct result of population decline or disappearing habitat. “(But) the listing of polar bears and ring seals and bearded seals are based on projections, rather than numbers actually dropping,” Suydam said.

“We’ve moved into a new era with the ESA, where the scientific models that are looking at potential effects are being used to make the decision,” Suydam said. “Sometimes scientists don’t always get it right, not because of any ill intent. This new approach is a concern as well.”

Addressing the problem at hand -- greenhouse gases -- would perhaps better serve those directly affected by the act than simply adding more species to it.

Working closely with subsistence hunters and the communities in the areas that depend on these species would be a better use of resources, Suydam said.

“The world is changing in many different ways, in ways that we all need to be concerned about,” he said. “There are some well-intentioned groups that are trying to use the ESA, but I don’t know if that’s the best approach.”

In Kotzebue, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists at the Selawik National Wildlife Refuge continually work to clarify the legislation for locals, said Brittany Sweeney, the refuge’s environmental education specialist.

“We just make sure that people have the best information,” Sweeney said. “We don’t make the regulations but we do have a lot of local contacts, so we always try to share information.”

To date, 99 percent of the species protected by the ESA have avoided extinction. Implemented by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1,400 domestic species of plants and animals and 600 foreign species are currently protected under this law. The ESA is responsible for the successful recovery of the bald eagle, the black-footed ferret and the California condor, among others.

“The Endangered Species Act has played an integral role in wildlife conservation for four decades, giving us the ability to work with partners across the nation to prevent the extinction of hundreds of species, recover many others, and protect fragile habitat that supports both species and people,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe said in a press release. “We face enormous challenges as we seek to sustain and build on this success, which is why we’re committed to improving our ability to work collaboratively with landowners and other key stakeholders at a landscape scale.”

Species, both flora and fauna, can receive protection under this law by gaining a listing of “endangered” or “threatened.” According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are five factors in determining a species’ fate: damage to habitat, overutilization of the species, disease or predation, lack of existing protection or other factors affecting the species. Garnering a spot under the law means advanced habitat protection, extensive monitoring and restrictions or a ban on removal.

“The ESA has done some really good things,” Suydam said.

And while it’s important to keep the act strong, he said, it’s important to “address the real reason why species are having a hard time.”

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.