Government declares beluga whale endangered

October 17, 2008 10:59:24 AM PDT
The federal government on Friday placed the beluga whales in Alaska's Cook Inlet under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, concluding that a decade-long recovery program has failed to ensure their survival. "In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering," said James Balsiger, acting assistant administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The findings by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service conflict with claims by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has questioned scientific evidence that the beluga whale population in the waters near Anchorage continues to decline.

Palin, Republican presidential nominee John McCain's running mate, has strongly objected to the federal government's possible declaration of the whale as endangered. She argued last December that a 2007 count of the whales in Cook Inlet indicated the population was beginning to recover, prompting a delay in NOAA's decision. But another review of the whale numbers earlier this year showed no increase and substantiated that the whale was still in decline, federal scientists concluded.

Alaska state offices were closed Friday because of a state holiday. Messages left with Palin's representatives were not immediately returned.

The dispute over the whale's listing was the second run-in Palin has had with the Bush administration over the Endangered Species Act. She has asked the courts to overturn an Interior Department decision earlier this year declaring polar bears threatened under the federal law.

The Cook Inlet beluga is one of five beluga whale populations in Alaska waters but the only one considered endangered.

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 that recovery of the beluga whale has been hindered by development and a range of economic and industrial activities including those related to oil and gas exploration in the Cook Inlet, which lies between the Alaska and Kenai peninsulas.

The Interior Department has proposed making available oil leases in the Cook Inlet as early as next year and in 2011, saying the waters have an estimated $1.38 billion worth of energy resources. Protection of the whale could hinder some of those activities.

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," said NOAA in a statement Friday.

The agency said NOAA scientists estimated there were 375 belugas in the inlet both last year and in another survey earlier this year, compared with a high of 653 in 1995.

Other beluga populations off Alaska inhabit Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea.

The decision pleased environmentalists.

"This ends the debate about whether the beluga should be protected ... and starts the critically important process of actually working to recover the species and protect its habitat," said Brendan Cummings, of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The group along with other environmentalists had petitioned for an endangerment declaration for the whale in April 2006. A decision, originally required to be made within a year, was postponed last April at the request of Alaska.

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