Federal Special Status Species
The purpose of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is to conserve threatened and endangered species and their ecosystems. A species is considered threatened if it is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
Two federal agencies, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), are responsible for maintaining lists of species that meet the definition of threatened or endangered under the ESA. NMFS is responsible for maintaining the list for most marine species and managing those species once they are listed. The USFWS is responsible for maintaining the list for terrestrial and freshwater species, as well as three marine mammal species (polar bear, Pacific walrus, and sea otter), and for managing those species once they are listed. NMFS and USFWS must determine if any species is endangered because of any of the following factors:
- The present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of its habitat of range;
- Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes;
- Disease or predation;
- The inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or
- Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.
All states contain species that are listed as threatened under the ESA. Some states are home to hundreds of threatened species. Alaska has relatively few species designated as threatened by NMFS and USFWS, with only 10 such species at present. Many species that are rare, endangered, or have been extirpated elsewhere in the United States are thriving in Alaska. Our geographical isolation, relatively recent growth in population, limited development, small agricultural industry, conservative laws on the introduction and importation of exotic animals, and a little luck, all contribute to these relatively favorable conditions.
Alaska's primary advantage has been the state's remoteness and isolation. Alaska was still a sparsely populated Russian territory when many wildlife species elsewhere were hunted to extinction or lost due to industrial and agricultural development and a lack of knowledge about habitat requirements. Thanks to advances in science and increased awareness, Alaskans have avoided many mistakes of the past.
The ESA defines critical habitat as "the specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species, at the time it is listed . . . on which are found those physical or biological features (I) essential to the conservation of the species and (II) which may require special management considerations or protection;" and "specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species at the time it is listed . . . [if those areas are determined to be] essential for the conservation of the species."