Alaska to sue over beluga whales

Gov. Palin opposes listing for potential oil and gas impacts

Posted: Thursday, January 15, 2009

ANCHORAGE - The state of Alaska announced Wednesday it will sue over increased protections for Cook Inlet beluga whales, the white whales that swim the silty waters off Alaska's largest city.

The belugas - an isolated group that is genetically distinct - were listed last year as endangered under the Endangered Species Act after federal scientists determined they were headed toward extinction.

The listing requires the designation of critical habitat for the whales, a recovery plan and a review of all federally-funded or permitted activities in Cook Inlet.

Gov. Sarah Palin is opposed to the listing because of the impact it could have on major Alaska development projects, including oil and gas development and expanding the Anchorage port.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which pushed to get the whales listed, said Palin is putting the oil industry ahead of the whales.

"Gov. Palin seems more than willing to sacrifice endangered whales on the altar of oil companies," said Brendan Cummings, the center's oceans program director.

Cook Inlet belugas have been in steady decline for years and now number about 375 animals. Scientists say if nothing is done they have a 26 percent chance of going extinct in the next 100 years.

The state said Wednesday that it wants the listing decision withdrawn. It feels that state and federal laws apart from the listing are sufficient to protect the whales. The population is stable and beginning to recover, said Denby Lloyd, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Palin said in a prepared statement that the state has worked cooperatively with the federal government to protect and conserve the whales. However, the listing decision did not reflect that, she said.

"This listing decision didn't take those efforts into account as required by law," the governor said.

The state says the listing decision also failed to provide Alaska agencies with an adequate written justification for portions of the ruling, failed to support the claim that the whales are a distinct group and failed to provide a public review or comment period.

Federal biologists have listed 18 potential threats to the Cook Inlet whales, whose numbers have trended downward for years. Three are man-made dangers: whale poaching, food reduction or noise caused by oil and gas drilling and coastal construction.

An estimated 375 beluga whales were counted last summer in waters off Anchorage. The number was unchanged from the year before.

At one time there were perhaps as many as 1,300 Cook Inlet belugas. The decline is believed to be because of overharvesting by Alaska Native subsistence hunters before the hunt was sharply curtailed nearly a decade ago.

However, the whales have not rebounded. The reason is unclear.

Craig Matkin, a marine mammal expert with the North Gulf Oceanic Society, said it appears the Palin administration likes one kind of science, "the kind it agrees with."

"Every objective expert who's looked at this small and isolated population agrees it should be listed," he said.

There are five groups of beluga whales in U.S. waters, all off Alaska.

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