Alaska Wildlife Action Plan

By the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies

In creating its CWCS, Alaska conducted a broad initial scoping phase. It then gathered specific information from scientific experts and others who have detailed knowledge of certain species or habitats of conservation need, provided an extensive public review of the draft, and cataloged and incorporated comments before finalizing the document. More than 250 people worked together to generate this conservation planning blueprint. Participants looked at needs for wildlife using a species-based approach and created a multiyear strategy designed to better conserve and manage the full spectrum of Alaska’s wildlife, promote coordination among agencies, organizations, and programs and encourage multi-source funding that will enhance and expand Alaska’s wildlife conservation toolbox.

Alaska’s CWCS outlines conservation goals and proposed actions for a diverse array of wildlife. Rather than directing attention to the few species known to be in serious decline, the document highlights conservation needs common to large numbers of species and the habitats that support them. Meanwhile, it provides specific action plans, including needed research, survey, and monitoring efforts, for 74 featured species and species groups ranging from little known cave insects to familiar species such as loons, owls, and whales.

Management

Land ownership is largely public (roughly 64% federal, 25% state), with the rest held by Native corporations (10%) and others (0.7%). About 53% of the state is designated in conservation units, from national parks, sanctuaries, and refuges focusing on landscape and species conservation to state forests and other lands designated for multiple uses including resource extraction. Only 18 species (17 animals, 1 plant) are listed as threatened or endangered.

Wildlife highlights

Alaska’s location and largely undeveloped landscapes provide productive areas of habitat for many species, including migratory birds. Thriving populations of big mammals, including caribou, brown bear, and mountain goat, along with five species of Pacific salmon, still exist in Alaska. Nearly 1,100 vertebrate species regularly occur; Alaska is also thought to have thousands of invertebrate species in habitats as varied as subterranean caves, marine and intertidal substrates, many terrestrial habitats, and countless rivers, lakes, and bogs. Alaska offers unique opportunities for scientific study in multi-disciplinary fields like species formation and dispersal, marine productivity, and effects of climate change. Threespine stickleback populations around Cook Inlet provide subjects for international discoveries in evolutionary biology, animal behavior, ecology, and genetics.

Primary challenges to conserving wildlife in Alaska

Lack of information and compatible data management systems

Gaps in information and information technology pose a serious challenge to wildlife conservation in Alaska. With some exceptions, mostly among birds, very little scientific information exists for species that are not commercially or recreationally hunted, trapped or fished. Data on many furbearers and game birds is also lacking. In order to effectively conserve Alaska’s wildlife, substantial effort must be devoted to collecting baseline information, including spatial data, for a wide array of species, especially those of conservation concern. To be most useful, such information must be collected and stored in compatible formats.

Climate change

Climate change is affecting Alaska’s weather, landforms, people, wildlife, and habitat, and this trend is expected to continue.

As forests dry out, the state is experiencing an increase in forest insect outbreaks and the frequency and severity of wildfires. Drying or flooding of wetland and tundra areas may have profound effects on nesting success of many migratory birds and their predators.

The ranges of species from more temperate regions, including nuisance species, will likely expand into higher latitudes and elevations, causing major shifts in types of plants and animals across Alaska.

Scientists expect some species that depend on sea ice (e.g., polar bears, walrus and ice seals) to decline and possibly go extinct in the next century.

Habitat fragmentation and loss

Habitat fragmentation and loss occurs when land alteration (e.g., logging, wetland fill) and urbanization (expanding communities and transportation systems) break up large landscapes into smaller blocks. Adverse effects on wildlife can include altered migration routes, disrupted dispersal, and reduced reproduction; as an example, amphibian species that overwinter in forested areas must be able to reach their spring breeding grounds in order to survive. Newly opened corridors can act as conduits for invasive species, or make a secretive species more visible to its predators. Also, even in very small remote communities, food, trash, and habitat changes linked to human activities can boost numbers of predators like ravens, with serious effects for at-risk species like Bristle-thighed Curlew nesting nearby.

Some of the greatest pressures on wildlife occur in riparian areas and coastal ecoregions, the primary focus of Alaska’s growth in human population, development, and tourism. Habitat alteration can affect forest-dwelling animals like Sitka black-tailed deer, little brown bats, Northern flying squirrels, Marbled Murrelets, and songbirds like Townsend’s Warbler.

In the same way, filling and loss of mudflats and eelgrass beds affects many species, such as Dunlin that depend on ice-free foraging grounds during spring migration, Black Scoters that feed in these areas through the winter, and fish like herring and juvenile salmon that use eelgrass beds as nurseries. For many species, Alaska’s lack of baseline data and GIS capability makes documenting effects of fragmentation and urbanization nearly impossible.

Working together for Alaska’s wildlife

At the start of the CWCS project, in order to get broad input on process, goals, and species with conservation needs, the planning team reached out to a range of partners including government agencies, conservation interests, landowners, resource users, representatives of the Native community, and the state’s 77 fish and game advisory committees, as well as to the general public. This was followed by two-day meetings and months of work with more than 100 scientific experts, peers, and others with Alaskan expertise on species and habitats in 14 major animal groups.

The planning team provided an eight-week window in which to review the draft CWCS, announcing the opportunity via email or letter to nearly 2,000 individuals and groups, and notice to the general public through a press release, newsletters, Alaska’s CWCS website, and a notice published in major instate newspapers. The team considered hundreds of comments received from universities, government agencies, and organizations including The Wildlife Society, Tanana Tribal Council, National Rifle Association, Territorial Sportsmen, Defenders of Wildlife, and Alaska Bird Observatory.

The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies represents all of North America’s fish and wildlife agencies, promotes sound management and conservation, and speaks with a unified voice on important fish and wildlife issues.

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