ANCHORAGE - Cook Inlet beluga whales won't be getting special protection under the Alaska Endangered Species Act, following a ruling by the Alaska Supreme court.
The high court upheld a 2002 decision by a lower court that sided with state officials who declined to list the whales as endangered. The Department of Fish and Game had decided the Cook Inlet belugas, although diminished, weren't immediately threatened with extinction and didn't qualify as a separate subspecies or species under state law.
In the ruling issued Friday, the state Supreme Court didn't address whether the whales ought to be endangered or whether that decision was correct, only whether the department commissioner reached the decision under a rational basis.
But the court did argue the state was too strict on whether local belugas qualified as subspecies and should have taken a broader look at the question.
The ruling was "incredibly frustrating" because it ignored evidence that whales might be facing extinction and focused on technical legal issues, said Randy Virgin, director of the Alaska Center for the Environment.
"I feel like the canary is lying dead in the cage and we're jumping up and down screaming about it and nobody's doing anything," Virgin told the Anchorage Daily News.
Cook Inlet belugas were once thought to number as many as 1,300 in a population that ranged from Kachemak Bay to upper Knik Arm. They plummeted to an estimated 350 to 400 in a decline that federal biologists attributed to overhunting by Alaska Natives.
The most recent population counts have not found any sign of recovery or further declines among the remaining whales, which now appear to forage only in waters near Anchorage.
The whales were listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 2000, a move that allowed the fisheries agency to regulate the Native harvest. Federal biologists had argued that taking only one or two whales per year for traditional subsistence hunts would allow the whales to slowly rebound.
But conservationists like Virgin have argued that other factors - including noise, shipping and oil platform discharges - could now be keeping the whales down and also must be studied.
Virgin said his group hasn't decided whether to pursue further legal action. Launching a citizen-based "beluga watch" for residents and pilots and boaters might be the next step, he said.