Clarion file photo In this 2012 file photo, an angler pulls a trout from the Kenai River for a photo. Rainbow trout are one of the many species included in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's state conservation plan. Birds and fish dominated the list of priority species.

Clarion file photo In this 2012 file photo, an angler pulls a trout from the Kenai River for a photo. Rainbow trout are one of the many species included in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's state conservation plan. Birds and fish dominated the list of priority species.

Conservation plan will determine federal funds for Alaskan wildlife

A plan by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released for public comment last week will help determine which of Alaska’s animal species will be supported by a share of federal conservation funding.

Since the creation of the federal State Wildlife Grant program in 2000, Alaska has received $38.1 million in federal money to fund state-created plans for conservation of selected wildlife, with the goal of preventing these species from joining the endangered species list.

“We get about $2.5 million a year, and the species and the habitats that we give that to are dictated by the species of greatest conservation need in this plan,” said plan’s co-author, Fish and Game wildlife biologist Matt Kirchoff.

Fish and Game wrote its last such plan in 2005. According to Kirchoff, that document was 842 pages long and provided a list of specific projects to be funded with the grant. The 203-page update, Kirchoff said, is meant to be more broadly strategic than specific. Rather than planning projects, it lists 361 “species of greatest conservation need” and identifies the largest threats to the habitats they rely on.

According to the plan, Alaska and its waters contain 1200 named vertebrate species, including 601 species of fish, 505 species of bird, and 116 species of mammals.

The plan’s species of concern roughly follow these proportions, although birds come in first with 180 listed species, fish and aquatic invertebrates second at 109 species, and mammals a distant third with 70 species.

The list’s differences of proportion reflect its ranking mechanism and the way the government distributes funds for conservation.

The plan includes 14 justifications for an species’ listing as a conservation concern. Three of these are cultural, economic, and ecological importance. Most aquatic species are listed for these justifications. They include the dungeness crab and five other crab species, nine culturally important clams and mussels including the razor, five species of shrimp, all five species of pacific salmon, and four species of trout. One shark, the salmon shark, is included for ecological importance.

Few of the 70 mammals are listed for economic importance, two exceptions are the fur seal and sperm whale. Four seal species, in addition to the pacific walrus and steller sea lion, are listed for cultural importance. The largest mammal groups are lemmings, voles, and shrews, many included for ecological importance — because they are a major food source for many predators — and as stewardship species — a species that has more than 74 percent of their global population in Alaska, placing a strong responsibility on Alaskans for their conservation. Five bats are included as sentinel species — ecologically-sensitive species whose population trends indicate looming changes in the environment.

Large game mammals, such as brown bear and moose, are absent from the list. Kirchoff said that balance between aquatic animals and game mammals was due in part to the way his agency receives federal conservation funds.

“We get about twice as much funding on the wildlife side as they do on the fish side, so they don’t have quite as much flexibility,” Kirchoff said, comparing his own Fish and Game Division of Wildlife Conservation to the agency’s Division of Sportfish.

Game animal conservation receives funding from two federal excise taxes on sporting goods, both named after their legislative creators: the Pittman-Robertson tax generates revenue from gun and ammunition sales for conservation of game mammals, while the Dingell-Johnson tax funds fish conservation by taxing motorboat fuel and fishing equipment.

“(Alaska Fish and Game) Wildlife Division has done very well in recent years with Pittman-Robertson funds because there’s been kind of a national run on ammunition and guns, which translates to an increase in tax revenue which funnels back to the states,” Kirchoff said. “On the sportfish side, their revenue stream has really declined in recent years.”

Because of this funding imbalance, Kirchoff said that his agency has prioritized commercially and ecologically significant fish conservation over game mammals for the additional funding given by State Wildlife Grants.

Few of the 180 listed birds are identified as ecologically, economically, or culturally important. The plans also uses inclusion in nine other conservation lists, including bird-specific lists such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s seabird, shorebird, landbird, and raptor plans, as a criteria for inclusion as a species of greatest concern. Many of Fish and Game’s listed birds are also included on these lists.

“There’s a lot of interest in birds,” Kirchoff said. “Consequently, there are a lot of groups that form around bird conservation, and have devoted a lot of time to tracking population trends and population numbers, and have identified species of population concern that they’re focusing their efforts on. We relied on their lists to some extent to identify species of greatest conservation needs in this plan.”

Many geese and ducks are also listed as culturally important, and several birds are listed as stewardship species. According to the plan, 73 species of shorebird — a third of the world’s known shorebird species — have been sighted in Alaska.

Kirchoff said that species endemic to Alaska — populations that occur nowhere else —  were given a very strong priority.

“We identified perhaps 20 species that are largely restricted to Alaska,” Kirchoff said. “… Those are logical, kind of a no-brainer, so we put those in a very small list of very high priorities.”

However, Kirchoff added that those endemic species are “not necessarily the ones that we are going to fund, because in some cases those species… are already well recognized, are already well-funded.”

Although they’ve been prioritized over other Alaskan species, the 361 listed animals are not guaranteed to be funded by State Wildlife Grants. Kirchoff estimated that when the specifics of his agency’s conservation projects are planned, the grants will enable them to work on perhaps a dozen species.

The plan is currently open to public comment until September 4. A revised final plan will be submitted to the US Fish and Wildlife Service on September 30.

Kirchoff said that the public comments will help him narrow the list of species to support.

“We will probably do that prioritization based in part on the comments we get back from the public and the agencies on this review period,” he said.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com

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