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Alaska’s Endangered Species Spotlight The State’s Uniqueness

Photo Courtesy FWS

Far-flung in a sometimes forgotten corner of North America lies a land shrouded in mystery, intrigue, and, to most Americans who have never visited, an almost cartoon-like wonder. This seemingly mythical place is full of frozen tundra, skyscraping mountain peaks, vast valleys of glaciers buffeted by icy rivers, and lakes filled with snowmelt runoff. 

Of course, the land in question is the great state of Alaska, aptly nicknamed “The Last Frontier.”

From the peak of Denali to the jaw-dropping expanse of the Bering Glacier, the highest mountain and the largest glacier in North America, respectively, Alaska contains a bounty of singular natural wonders.

It should come as no surprise that numerous unique and even some endangered species live in this natural wonderland. 

The importance of protecting these endangered species is more apparent in a place like Alaska, where the topography and massive amount of land allow for the repopulation of these creatures if proper steps are taken to protect them. 

One such massive step is the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which protects animals on the verge of extinction. It just celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2023.

Alaska contains three animals that fall under the protection of the act. Read on to learn more about these fascinating creatures and what must be done to ensure their survival.

Leatherback Sea Turtle

Photo Courtesy FWS

This endangered species may seem to be a familiar one. However, this particular stripe of slow-moving is different in many ways, some of which make it even more vulnerable than its other counterparts. The Leatherback sea turtle, unlike other ones, contains no bony plates on its shell, which is made up of leathery, oily connective tissue covering interlocking dermal bones instead. This feature, in addition to its lack of claws on its front flippers, while useful for long migration swims, makes the leatherback sea turtle more vulnerable in the wild. 

It has been listed under the ESA since 1973 — it was protected under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970, a precursor to the ESA — although its specific numbers are unknown today. Unsurprisingly, its greatest threats are mostly human-made, as some countries still harvest their eggs and the turtles themselves. Add to this that the Leatherback sea turtle is often at risk of being caught in commercial fishing nets, and one can see why it’s essential to take steps to protect the majestic creature’s natural habitat so it can thrive again.

Steller Sea Lion

Photo Courtesy FWS

Another Alaskan endangered species that may seem familiar to some is actually as unique as they come and, sadly, at high risk of extinction. The Steller sea lion is closely related to its California counterpart but is much larger and lighter in color. It also is the biggest member of the “Otariid” or “eared-seal” family. 

At one time, these creatures thrived. However, since the early 1980s, there have only been occasional sightings of male Steller sea lions, causing real concern about their long-term survival, hence their inclusion under the ESA.

The vast majority of the Steller sea lion population was found just off the Alaskan coast in the Gulf of Alaska. Some 70% of the world’s Steller sea lion population lived there until a rapid decline in the species began in the 1970s, dropping that number closer to 50%. 

Many hypotheses have emerged about this decline, including the expansion of commercial fishing, which drastically changed the Steller sea lions’ dietary habits and could have resulted in lower population growth. Another theory is the predation of orcas and sharks due to changing migration patterns, which would put these predators feeding in the Steller sea lions’ habitats. 

The good news is that there seems to be a reversal in the Steller sea lion’s fortunes in recent years! So much so that it was removed from the Endangered List in 2013 and will hopefully continue to thrive for generations to come.

Blue Whale

Photo Courtesy NOAA Fisheries

While it is hard to truly gauge the scope of this great beast, the blue whale is actually the largest mammal on Earth. They are about the length of three typical school buses! As if this fact weren’t gobsmacking enough, blue whales can weigh on average 200,000 to 300,000 pounds and commonly grow to be 80 to 90 feet long, although there are recorded individual blue whales of up to and more than 100 feet long. 

These incredible creatures can be found in all oceans worldwide, excluding the Arctic Ocean, and a sizable portion of the world’s population is found off the frigid waters of Northern North America and the Alaska coast. Unsurprisingly, the blue whale’s greatest (and only) true threat is humans — particularly the advancement of modern harpoon weaponry in whale hunting. 

In the 19th century, the blue whale was too massive for common whaling tactics, but as technology advanced, so did the number of whales harvested. According to The Marine Mammal Center, hunting reached its peak in 1931 when nearly 30,000 were killed. Thankfully, now, under the protection of the ESA and other legislation around the world, the blue whale is amid a population comeback, one that will hopefully continue for years to come.

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