ANCHORAGE - The beluga whales of Alaska's Cook Inlet are endangered and require additional protection to survive, the government declared Friday, contradicting Gov. Sarah Palin, who has questioned whether the distinctive white whales are actually declining.
It was the Republican vice presidential candidate's second environmental slap from Washington this year. She has asked federal courts to overturn an Interior Department decision declaring polar bears threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The government on Friday put a portion of the whales on the endangered list, rejecting Palin's argument that it lacked scientific evidence to do so. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that a decade-long recovery program had failed to ensure the whales' survival.
"In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering," said James Balsiger, NOAA acting assistant administrator.
The decision means that before federal agencies can issue a variety of commercial permits, they must first consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine if there are potential harmful effects on the whales.
That has the potential to affect major Alaska projects including an expansion of the Port of Anchorage, additional offshore oil and gas drilling, a proposed $600 million bridge connecting Anchorage to Palin's hometown of Wasilla and a massive coal mine 45 miles south of Anchorage.
The state does have serious concerns about the low population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet and has had those concerns for many years, Palin said in a statement. "However, we believe that this endangered listing is premature," she said.
Palin in April successfully lobbied for a six-month delay in a listing decision until a count of the whales this summer could be included in deliberations. That count showed no increase over 2007 numbers - 375 whales, compared with a high of 653 in 1995.
Federal regulators and conservation groups said further delay would be harmful.
NOAA said Friday the Cook Inlet population declined by 50 percent between 1994 and 1998 and "is still not recovering" despite restrictions on the number of whales that Alaska's native population can kill for subsistence. It said recovery has been hindered by development and a range of economic and industrial activities including those related to oil and gas exploration.
The National Marine Fisheries Service "will identify habitat essential for the conservation of the Cook Inlet belugas in a separate rule-making within a year," the agency said.
The federal decision pleased environmentalists.
"We can finally focus now not on whether the belugas are endangered, but what we can do to protect them," said Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups that petitioned for the listing.
Cook Inlet stretches 180 miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage. It is named for Capt. James Cook, the British explorer who sailed into the inlet in 1778 on a quest to find the Northwest Passage.
Beluga whales feed on salmon and smaller fish. They can also eat crab, shrimp, squid and clams. During summers, the whales, which reach a length of up to 15 feet, often can be spotted from the highways leading away from Anchorage, gathered at river mouths, chasing salmon that have schooled before a run to spawning grounds.
Beluga whales' natural enemies are killer whales, but something else has been keeping their numbers down in Alaska's Cook Inlet.
Craig Matkin, an independent biologist who has worked in Southcentral Alaska for 25 years, said the delay in the listing had held up a comprehensive research plan to find out why the population had not recovered after subsistence hunting was curtailed.
The concern is not just in numbers, he said, but in distribution. Whales in recent years have been staying in northern Cook Inlet near Anchorage.
"They're just gone from these areas," he said of his own home near in Homer, near the tip of the Kenai Peninsula and about 100 miles from Anchorage. "Why they aren't coming down into this habitat is a question I'd like to answer."
Future development won't be helpful to the recovery, Cummings said, starting with the noise and pollution associated with industrialization of the inlet, which includes oil rigs off the Kenai Peninsula.
Global warming, changing ocean conditions and higher temperatures in salmon streams may be another factor, Cummings said.
The Port of Anchorage, helped by congressional earmarks secured by Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, has embarked on a $500 million project to double the port's size and replace its aging docks.
Environmental groups also have expressed concern about a planned coal mine 45 miles from Anchorage across Cook Inlet, where developers propose to mine 300 million metric tons of sub-bituminous coal, roughly equal to the energy of a billion barrels of oil, over 25 years. That would mean noise and boat traffic associated with building and operating a mine, a potential effect on salmon streams and more warming.
The Cook Inlet beluga whales are one of five populations in Alaska waters and the only one endangered. Other beluga populations off Alaska inhabit Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea.