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Countering 'hype' and 'myths' surrounding Endangered Species Act in Alaska

Jill Burke

It's no secret that Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell is disenchanted with the Endangered Species Act, the federal law that protects struggling animal populations and their habitats.

While Parnell criticizes the use of the courts by environmentalists to stymie development, he has had no qualms using the same tactic to try to dislodge perceived threats to development. His administration has been quick to litigate matters it perceives as problematic.

In fact, he's sought a $1 million increase for state lawyers to wage more fights. And he's proud to be the guy leading the charge.

“Yes, we have filed a lot of lawsuits. And I don’t apologize for any of them,” he once said during a luncheon hosted by the Resource Development Council in 2010.

Federal agencies and the governor's office both realize the court of public opinion matters. Where Parnell has loudly criticized the application of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in Alaska, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reaching out in its own way.

On Thursday, it will hold a public meeting at the Loussac Library in Anchorage.

During the afternoon talk -- “The ESA and You: A Conversation about Conservation”  -- the agency will discuss its priorities and look for ways the act can be more effective and less contentious.

That may be a tall order.

“We are under an unprecedented assault by federal agencies and environmental groups to lock up Alaska’s resources,” Parnell said two years ago. “The examples are almost too numerous to list: NPR-A stoppage, OCS moratorium, ANWR wilderness designation, slowdown of EIS permitting at Point Thomson, constant ESA listings and thousands of square miles dedicated to ESA critical habitat, and ocean zoning.  Every day, some federal agency seeks to shut us up and lock us down in Alaska.”

If that's true, how can Fish and Wildlife service claim this?

“Since 2002, we (Fish and Wildlife) have reviewed over 5,500 projects under the ESA, including oil and gas exploration, drilling, mining, construction, port development, timber harvest, and energy projects. No projects in Alaska have been stopped or had major modifications because of the ESA.”

That statement aims to counter the notion that red tape is blocking development, part of Fish and Wildlife's four-month-long, myth-busting effort surrounding the Endangered Species Act.

Another “myth,” according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, is the idea that the endangered species act places overly restrictive requirements on oil and gas development in Alaska, adding millions to development costs. Here's how Fish and Wildlife counters that assertion:

We have worked effectively with the oil and gas industry for decades to conserve Alaska’s species and minimize disruption to industry activities. As an example, in the spring of 2011, a polar bear emerged from her den unexpectedly near an oil industry site. The producer immediately contacted us and we worked together to determine the appropriate measures that would protect the bear and allow industry activities to continue.

The polar bear, recently listed as threatened, is the most high-profile celebrity species encountered by the act.

Coca-Cola has pledged to help the bears via a fund raising and conservation effort. At the same time, Shell Oil continues its efforts in Alaska to send ships to perform offshore oil drilling in the polar bear's home turf -- the Arctic Ocean.

Other topics that will be brought up at Thursday's public meeting include:

• Explaining why, if extinction is a natural process, people should worry about trying to stop it.

• How the rights of Alaska's subsistence hunters fit into the regulatory framework set up to protect endangered animals.

Fourteen Alaska species, including one plant, are listed as endangered under the ESA. They inclde the 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: 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 species 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.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com