Alaska is known for its unique mix of flora and fauna, its remote location and cold climate playing host to a menagerie of species that are adapted to live in its harsh environment. Additionally, Alaska has historically been sparsely populated, meaning that wildlife have traditionally been able to thrive without the risk of human development harming their ecosystems. However, in recent years, oil and natural resource development as well as increased migration into the state have put a number of species at risk.
At present, there are several species of Alaskan wildlife that are endangered and could very well become extinct if current trends are not reversed. Read on to learn about endangered species of the Alaskan Interior.
Endangered Species of the Alaskan Interior
The Endangered Species Act delineates a difference between endangered species and “threatened” species. An endangered species is defined as one that is at risk of becoming extinct throughout all or a significant part of its natural habitat, while a threatened species is one that is likely to become endangered in the near future. Additionally, the state of Alaska has its own definitions of threatened and endangered species that may differ from the federal definition.
Many of the endangered species in Alaska are whales. Whales have traditionally been hunted for both their meat and their oil, the latter of which was used as fuel for light and heat prior to the invention of electricity. Many Alaskan Natives hunted whales as part of their traditional folkways, and European settles hunted whales as well for sport and money. Because whales reproduce at a far slower rate than fishers can hunt them, this has led to a massive drop in whale numbers worldwide.
The blue whale, fin whale, North Pacific right whale, sei whale, and sperm whale are major species of whale that are in danger of extinction. Commercial whaling in the 1800’s and early 1900’s drove these species nearly to extinction, as improving technology made it easier for fishers and whalers to track and capture them. In 1966, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling formally banned commercial whalers from hunting the blue and fin whale. In 1970, the blue whale, fin whale, North Pacific right whale, sei whale, and sperm whale were listed as endangered species under the Endangered Species Conservation Act, the predecessor to the Endangered Species Act. The Marine Mammal Protection Act also lists these species of whale as “depleted.”
Humpback whales, a well-known species of whale, are also listed as an endangered species. Like the blue and fin whales, humpback whales were protected by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1966 and the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970. However, conservation efforts to keep the humpback whale alive have been a massive success, as the humpback population in Alaska has increased from 1,400 in 1966 to over 21,000 today.
Bowhead whales, one of the few species of whale that resides in Alaska year-round and does not migrate, is another endangered species. The 1931 League of Nations Convention was the first international attempt to give protection to bowhead whales, while the International Whaling Commission of 1964 formally regulated commercial whalers who sought out bowheads. The U.S. named the bowhead whale as an endangered species in the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966.
The Cook Inlet beluga whale is another endangered species of whale, largely due to the fact that unlike other Alaskan whales, it has a naturally small population. It is estimated that the Cook Inlet beluga whale population peaked at 600 during the mid-20th century and declined to less than 400 between 1994 and 1998. This was attributed to overharvest by subsistence whalers, who rely on whaling to provide meat and oil for their communities.
The Eskimo curlew, a species of shorebird that makes its habitat along the Alaskan coast, is another species at risk of extinction. Once one of the most common shorebirds in North America, unregulated overharvest during the 1800’s dramatically decreased their numbers. The Eskimo curlew was also impacted by the extinction of the Rocky Mountain grasshopper and a number of other species it relied on for food. While presumed extinct by 1905, several confirmed sightings of Eskimo curlew were made over the following years. In 1967, the Eskimo curlew was added to the list of endangered species under the Endangered Species Preservation Act. The curlew is considered extinct due to the last confirmed sighting of occurring in 1987. While there was a sighting of Eskimo curlew reported in 1996, this sighting was never confirmed.
Another major endangered species in Alaska is the leatherback sea turtle, which was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated several critical habitats for the leatherback sea turtle in Washington, Oregon, California, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The short-tailed albatross is regarded as endangered by both the U.S. government and Alaska state government. During the 1800’s and early 1900’s, short-tailed albatrosses were harvested for their feathers in large numbers, leading to a massive collapse in their population. While thought extinct by 1949 due to their absence from breeding areas, ten adults were observed in 1951. The short-tailed albatross population has since rebounded and become a nuisance to long-line fishing operations, as fishers accidentally catch them while out on the water. Fishers have begun taking precautions to avoid capturing albatrosses as bycatch. The short-tailed albatross was listed as endangered by the Alaska state government in 1972 and by the federal government in 2000.
Finally, the Steller sea lion is another major endangered species in Alaska. After observing a sharp crash in the sea lion population during the 20th century due to incidental killing by fishers, the U.S. government listed the Steller sea lion as endangered in 1990. Critical habits for the sea lion were designated in 1993, with the population divided into two halves, one east of the 144º W longitude line and the other west of it. The eastern population was reclassified as threatened and the western remained endangered. In 2013, the eastern population of Steller sea lions was delisted from the threatened species list, while the western population remains endangered. Steller sea lions are also listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and rules have been put in place to prevent competition between the sea lion and commercial fishers.
Many species in Alaska that are thought of as endangered are actually threatened. For example, polar bears are listed as a threatened species by the federal government, though there have been attempts by environmentalists to relist them as endangered. It is likely that more species in Alaska will come under threat as the human population grows and natural resource extraction continues to expand. Several portions of Alaska, such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, have been created in order to allow species to thrive without the risk of human encroachment. In addition to human development threatening Alaskan wildlife, climate change also poses a major challenge to the continued existence of many species.
Alaska is a land of majestic, largely unspoiled beauty, but it is not immune to the pressures that other regions in the world are facing. Continued human encroachment poses a major threat to the state’s biodiversity, reducing the populations of important animals and driving them to the brink of extinction. In order to preserve the delicate balance of nature and ensure that generations to come will be able to enjoy Alaska’s unique landscape and wildlife, governments and humans must work to ensure that species have space to thrive in the world.