RDC supports developmentresponsible developmentin Alaska. Not development at any cost; not development that will compromise the things we all value. Developers and environmentalists alike live in Alaska because they love the outdoors, the wildlife it supports, and the economic opportunities it provides. Unfortunately, the aforementioned wildlife is often used to block economic opportunities, all under the guise of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
Polar bears, beluga whales in Cook Inlet, sea otters in Southwest Alaska, and Spectacled/Steller’s eiders, to name a few, are some of the hypothetical dodo birds of Alaska. The problem, however, is that none of these species is actually in imminent danger of going the way of the dodo bird. Even so, many would like the rest of us Alaskans, or better yet, the rest of the United States, to believe they are. Here’s some interesting information about these species you may not have heard.
Polar Bears: RDC acknowledges that polar bear habitat, through the melting of sea ice, may be decreasing. However, RDC objects to the current attempt to list the bears because they are already protected by numerous international and domestic agreements, regulatory mechanisms, and laws. As a result of these protections, the polar bear population in Alaska is healthy in size and distribution. In addition, it should be noted polar bear numbers have not been impacted by oil and gas development on the North Slope. As the Central Arctic Caribou herd has shown (its population has increased 11 fold since development at Prudhoe began), wildlife and development can co-exist. Once the bears are listed under the ESA, any threat to the polar sea ice would lead to third party lawsuits, demanding federal mandates to reduce greenhouse gases. These mandates should be debated up front and not legislated through the backdoor by the ESA.
Beluga Whales In Cook Inlet: These animals, whose populations were substantially reduced by subsistence hunting in the 90s, have shown signs of recovery with increasing numbers of juvenile whales being reported in a recent National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) report. In fact, prior to the large hunts, the whales thrived both in number and in physiology while oil and gas development, fishing, transportation, and other industrial activities occurred in the Inlet. Moreover, these animals possess the lowest contaminant level of any Alaskan beluga populations in tissue sampling studies.
Southwest Alaskan Sea Otters: Sea otters thrive all over Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, and elsewhere around the world. But, their numbers have taken a dive in Southwest Alaska where killer whales are having a feast in what appears to be a predator- prey cycle, not at all human-induced. Interestingly, there are several potential development projects proposed in Southwest Alaska, so it should not be a surprise that a petition has been filed recently to designate additional critical habitat. The likely result? Areas desperate for economic diversification might be potentially closed to development without any positive impact to the otters.
Spectacled And Steller’s Eiders: The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has recently given notice of its intent to sue to increase the amount of critical habitat for Spectacled and Steller’s Eiders. They argue that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service excluded key areas of the North Slope from critical habitat designations. Primary constituent elements for designating critical habitat exist in many areas in the eiders’ ranges and over 40,000 square miles have already been designatedthat’s bigger than the area of 13 individual states! Fortunately, the ESA requires consideration of the economic impact of critical habitat designation. According to the law itself, areas may be excluded from critical habitat unless “the failure to designate such area as critical habitat will result in the extinction of the species concerned.” This is not the case with respect to the eiders on the North Slope. It appears the CBD’s litigation may have the unintended (or intended) consequence to delay or prevent new oil and gas opportunities on the North Slope.
Too many resources from both interest groups and the government are invested in the ESA listing process and critical habitat designations rather than on the science and research needed to truly understand and assist at-risk populations. More could be done if true partnerships among industry, the government, and the conservation community were developed, both prior to, and after a listing. Of course, this would require a conservation community willing to support some development and to accept some environmental impact, a government empowered to be flexible and proactive, and businesses consistently reaching out to other stakeholders.
Today, much of the very best research is being done by industry either as part of the National Environmental Policy Act analysis or as ongoing monitoring. Unfortunately, much of the private sector science is immediately discounted because of its funding source.
Take, for example, the beluga whales in Cook Inlet. The studies being done by the agency responsible for their oversight (NMFS) are limited to one, and I repeat, ONE annual population survey. Yet, this past year, several million dollars have been spent on beluga research by the Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority, the Port of Anchorage, the Chuitna Coal project, and Chevron. In fact, a study recently funded by Chevron to identify individual belugas by fluke patterns showed more animals in both the Susitna River drainage and Knik Arm than the NMFS’ survey indicated for the entire Inlet. More importantly, this study shows a proportion of sub-adults greater than 40%. These animals will soon be reaching sexual maturity and adding to the population. This study provides a significant addition to our collective knowledge about these whales.
Both the conservation and development communities should be supporting the use of sound, peer-reviewed science to make management decisions. Ultimately, I would like to see as much energy spent helping the management agencies identify research and funding needs as is spent getting the species listed in the first place.
We all want healthy fish and wildlife populations. Industries have demonstrated that development and wildlife can co-exist in Alaska and a willingness to help better understand at-risk species. If we work together before a listing occurs, ultimately we may not need to resort to the Endangered Species Act. However, when the ESA does come into play, the conservation and development communities must both work to recover these animals, rather than continue to use them as a tool to stop development.