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Endangered Species Act Celebrates 40th Anniversary

By | May 20, 2013

Humpback Whale: Endangered (Photo courtesy NOAA)

Humpback Whale: Endangered (Photo courtesy NOAA)

Friday, May 17 was the 40th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act. Congress passed the act in 1973 over concerns that many species of plants and animals were in danger of becoming extinct.

Bill Hanson is the Field Supervisor of the Juneau Field Office for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Southeast Alaska. His office is responsible for recovery efforts and restoration programs in Southeast Alaska.

“Sometimes we look at species and we think ‘well does it make a difference if one disappears or another one disappears’ and the main thing to remember this is that each of those species represents some portion of that ecological network. So if you look at one species disappearing it’s not just one species disappearing it’s actually all the interactions that relate to it.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife manages some marine mammals including the polar bear, walrus and sea otters. They also manage almost all of the endangered terrestrial species of animals and plants as well as freshwater fish. They work in conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Servicewhich also has a field office in Juneau. (Here’s a full list of endangered, threatened and candidate species in Alaska)

Marine Fisheries manages all of the other endangered marine mammals including whales, sea lions, seals, saltwater fish, and turtles.

Hanson says that Southeast Alaska doesn’t have very many endangered species compared to other parts of the country or Alaska, but a there are number of species including the Short-tailed Albatross, sea otters and a variety of whales that are monitored.

“A species doesn’t become listed unless it’s in real trouble. Once it’s listed, we go into the next phase which is recovery. Recovery doesn’t just mean getting it above the line which would be it’s either threatened or not threatened. It’s getting it back to healthy populations. That can take a long time and in some cases maybe it’s not possible. We don’t ever know the full answer to that. Success can be measured in a lot of different ways. Ideally, complete recovery is the measure of success and in other cases it maybe that we simply prevent it from becoming extinct.”

The specific reasons that a species becomes endangered can vary widely but most fall into one of two categories: either the species has lost its habitat for some reason or something has caused the species to not be able to function normally such as pesticides or pollution.

There have been success stories. In the Lower 48, the Bald Eagle was once on the edge of extinction due to pesticides, but after it was added to the Endangered Species List and pesticides were more carefully cleaned up and regulated, the birds bounced back.

In Alaska, the Arctic Peregrine Falcon and the Aleutian Canada goose were both successfully recovered.

Hanson says the most important thing to remember is that it’s never just one species that’s in danger because everything in an ecosystem in connected. When one species is endangered, they often represent a broader range of species than just themselves.

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