Federal Special Status Species
Federal Endangered Species

The purpose of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) is to conserve threatened and endangered species and their ecosystems. A species is considered endangered if it is in danger of extinction 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 endangered under the ESA. Some states are home to hundreds of endangered species. Alaska has relatively few species designated as endangered by NMFS and USFWS, with fewer than 15 species currently listed as endangered. 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 listing of a species as endangered makes it illegal to "take" (harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to do these things) that species. Federal agencies may be allowed limited take of species through interagency consultations with NMFS or USFWS. Non-federal individuals, agencies, or organizations may be granted limited take through special permits with conservation plans. Adverse effects on listed species must be minimized, and in some cases conservation efforts are required to offset the take.

Critical Habitat

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."