Managing extinction: the United States' decision to end the Eskimo hunt of the endangered bowhead whale

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Virginia Tech


Effective natural resource management by the federal government is seldom achieved without engendering some degree of controversy. The competing needs of various plant and animal species often place the government in the position of having to choose between the needs of one species over another. Occasionally, the choice directly involves the needs of human beings, creating a situation where public administrators must weigh the impacts of their actions on both a species they are charged to protect and the public they serve.

In 1977, the federal government was placed in the position of having to choose between the need to afford greater protection to the endangered bowhead whale and the social and cultural needs of Alaskan Eskimos who have hunted the bowhead for over four thousand years. At the time, the decision exemplified the role of the federal government as an arbitrator of survival, a situation that is becoming increasingly commonplace as the continued development of the world’s natural resources, along with an ever-expanding human population, has resulted in numerous decisions that effectively choose between one species or the other.

An examination of the decision-making process established by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the United States Department of Commerce to resolve the 1977 controversy involving the Eskimos and the bowhead whales provides useful lessons and insights on how such decisions can be made in an open format that allows affected constituencies, notwithstanding the whales, adequate opportunity for comment and input.