Alaskans are used to seeing the Endangered Species Act at work to great effect. When eagles, falcons and swans were listed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service turned to Alaska - where the animals still flourished - for brood stock. Wolves from Alaska, now repopulating Wyoming and Montana, got similar treatment.
The act does have its benefits in helping to pry loose badly needed research funding. The act has great power, and it forces our society to ask whether - or to what extent - preserving wild species and their habitats is more important than economic upheaval or even dislocation of families. By and large, the United States is a better place for the existence of the Endangered Species Act.
But any act can be misapplied. From the full impact of the spotted owl listing on the timber industry in the 1990s way back to Tennessee's snail darter snafu of the 1970s, its history has examples of undue impact on people's livelihoods.
At times, the act has been used as a legal hammer that cost U.S. taxpayers millions upon millions of dollars in court while on-the-ground conservation efforts were nonexistent and the price for worthy developments soared. The costs trickle down. The people pay.
Indeed, the Little Tennessee River was not the sole environment for that little fish that was never truly endangered. But it nevertheless put a stop to a massive hydroelectric project. Congress and the courts were tied in knots for years. It took the better part of a decade to set things straight. The fish was later de-listed.
So with Wednesday's listing of the polar bear as threatened under the act, there is plenty of rational cause for concern. Questions remain about whether this is an appropriate and effective use of the act. Questions remain about global warming in general, much less whether a direct tie exists between human activity and thinning polar ice. More resources to answer these questions now will very likely be funneled into the courts rather than to biologists' field books and scientific lab work.
Many still feel that polar bears are quite well protected and that funding and research under the Marine Mammal Protection Act is more than adequate to document their fate or argue for measures to mitigate population declines.
When North Slope Borough Mayor Edward S. Itta responded to the listing by qualifying his intent to work with federal agencies saying "the Endangered Species Act is a very big hammer, and it could easily land on us even if the agencies don't want it to," he is expressing a realistic and practical concern.
When U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens said, "this abuse of endangered species law will have a devastating impact on the entire nation through endless litigation and regulation," his concerns are not unfounded.
Immediately following Wednesday's announcement, the Alaska Wilderness League called for the suspension of all oil and gas activities in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Any resulting action will no doubt lead to the courts.
And so here come the lawyers.