Alaskans weigh costs, benefits of Endangered Species Act alterations

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The Department of the Interior is changing the way the 1970s-era Endangered Species Act - credited with helping save the bald eagle, grizzly bear and others since its inception by then-President Richard Nixon - will be implemented across the country, as announced by the agency early Monday.

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt unveiled on August 12 what his department called "improvements to implementing regulations of the Endangered Species Act."

"From the outset, our intent has been to be true to the law," Bernhardt said, "maintaining the legal standards while creating a more transparent more reliable and more efficient and defensible regime; that better serves the American people and better focuses our efforts on the ground."

Those against the move, however, say the changes are the exact opposite, and have the potential to irreparably damage ecosystems not only in the United States, but around the world.

"It's just another move by the Trump Administration to dismantle everything that protects our national wildlife and national lands," said David C. Raskin of Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges. "It is outrageous."

The changes primarily alter two of the main sections of the ESA: Section 4, which deals in large part with adding species to or removing species from the act's protection; and Section 7, which covers consultations with other federal agencies. Opponents said Monday that the move makes it more challenging to add species to the endangered lists and includes fewer protections once plants and animals are on a designated list. Proponents said the new version gets multiple federal agencies on the same page in terms of what requirements exist to get plants and animals on endangered and threatened species lists in the first place.

"Our intention is to do our best to implement the act," said Moira Ingle, a wildlife biologist for the State of Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She said believes the changes to the act are of overall benefit. "We work with the services to implement the act as appropriately as possible," she said, "not go overboard in one direction or the other."

Still, opponents said the changes could speed up the timeline of extinction for certain struggling plants and animals.

"I mean, this is a pretty dark day for people who care about saving America's natural heritage," said Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity. Hartl said he expects to see lawsuits in an effort roll back the changes in the near future.

Others said the new version of the ESA is largely in favor of those in development, including oil and gas industries.

"This is clearly about making changes to the act that will benefit developers and extractive industries," said Sr. Endangered Species Council for Defenders of Wildlife Jason Rylander, "not about protecting species."

Currently, 13 endangered species inhabit Alaskan lands; eight species have been recorded as "threatened" for the time being; and two species are under consideration for either of those lists.

Read the full revised regulations by clicking here.

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