Mayor: Fed designation could harm inlet growth

Posted: Thursday, January 07, 2010

WASILLA - The pending federal designation of critical habitat for Cook Inlet's beluga whales has Matanuska-Susitna Borough Mayor Talis Colberg concerned.

The borough has big economic plans for the Inlet, particularly its fledgling Port MacKenzie. A critical habitat designation would not add an insurmountable barrier to further development, but it would present an obstacle, Colberg said.

"When you get an endangered species act designation it means there has to be an extra layer of procedure for anything that relates to the ocean where they live," Colberg told the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper.

The federal government is accepting comments on the issue until February. The mayor said he will ask the borough assembly to approve a resolution asking for an extension.

"What is probably more controversial, which I haven't weighed in on directly, is asking for funds for further scientific study," Colberg said.

Anchorage and Kenai have already pledged to seek that money, Colberg said, but he's not sure his assembly will see it as a priority.

Cook Inlet's belugas were estimated to number about 1,300 in the early 1980s, but the population plummeted to around 350 in the late 1990s. Scientists blamed subsistence hunts, but Native hunters voluntarily curtailed their harvests in 1999 and the population hasn't rebounded.

The fisheries service listed the whales as endangered in 2008 and last year proposed designating more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the whales.

Colberg, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey are all worried about the economic ramifications. Colberg said he can't quarrel with the beluga count, but that he wonders if the Endangered Species Act is being used as intended.

"More and more it seems like it's becoming a tool that's used to stop development than to protect species," he said.

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