Conservation groups sue to force decision on belugas

Posted: Tuesday, July 01, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Five conservation groups have sued the federal government for delaying a listing of Cook Inlet beluga whales under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year proposed listing the white whales, which often can be spotted from Anchorage highways, as endangered.

However, NOAA Fisheries officials announced in April that they would delay a decision on the proposed rule for up to six months. Agency researchers said they needed more time to prepare a 2008 population estimate.

Conservation groups called the delay a reaction to development interests and the state of Alaska and sued Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to force an immediate decision.

Attorney Vicki Clark of Trustees for Alaska, which represents the conservation groups, said there is no lawful reason for further delay.

"There's no disagreement in the science," she said. "They should move forward instead of using this delay tactic to keep this population off the list."

NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Connie Barclay said from Washington, D.C. that she had not seen the lawsuit and that agency officials would have no immediate comment. State officials back the delay.

"We certainly support the National Marine Fisheries Service taking a few more months to gather data and evaluate the scientific information," said Doug Vincent-Lang, endangered species coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

There is disagreement over whether the population is recovering, he said.

"We don't believe the short postponement will hurt the population," he said.

Conservation groups petitioned to list Cook Inlet belugas as endangered in April 2007 and a decision for a proposed listing was due in April.

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