Beluga whale joins endangered species list
Alaska subspecies affected by ruling
WASHINGTON - The federal government placed the beluga whales in Alaska's Cook Inlet under the protection of the Endangered Species Act yesterday, 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 assertions by Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, 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 this year showed no increase and substantiated that the whale was still in decline, federal scientists concluded.
Alaska state offices were closed yesterday 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 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 yesterday that 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.