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Anchorage Daily News    July 1, 2008

Suit filed over delay in beluga protection
By Dan Joling

ANCHORAGE, Alaska – 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 that often can be spotted from Anchorage highways as endangered.

However, NOAA Fisheries officials announced in April that they would delay a decision for up to six months. Agency researchers said they needed more time to prepare a 2008 population estimate. Conservation groups called that unacceptable and sued Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to force an immediate decision.

“There is simply no lawful reason for further delay in protecting the Cook Inlet beluga whale,” said Vicki Clark of Trustees for Alaska, which represents the conservation groups, in a statement.

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.

The five conservation groups include the Alaska Center for the Environment, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and two Homer, Alaska-based organizations, Cook Inletkeeper and the North Gulf Oceanic Society.

Anchorage is at the head of Cook Inlet, a 180-mile estuary that separates the Kenai Peninsula from mainland Alaska. Cook Inlet branches into Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm on its northern end.

According to the conservation groups, Cook Inlet belugas are genetically distinct and geographically isolated. Their numbers have fallen since the 1980s, when federal scientists estimated the population at 1,300 whales. The population now stands at about 375 animals.

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

The groups said Monday there was no reason for a delay and they cite a May 1 letter from the federal Marine Mammal Commission that concludes disagreement over the listing is “not scientifically credible.”

The letter signed by executive director Tim Ragen said the delay was particularly troubling and the latest in a series of decisions that have failed to bring in resources needed to encourage the belugas' recovery.

“For two decades, the Service has repeatedly misjudged the plight of the Cook Inlet beluga whale population. It has assumed that alleviation of the primary factor that caused the decline (unmanaged subsistence harvests) would lead to recovery of the population. This assumption discounts the other factors that may now be contributing to the population's decline and impeding its recovery,” Ragen wrote.

If the agency had listed the population when it was first petitioned to do so, its high risk of extinction and the eventual cost of necessary recovery actions might have been reduced, Ragen wrote.

Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity said Cook Inlet is subject to development pressures including petroleum drilling and production, sewage discharges, contaminated runoff and spills.

Several proposed development projects, including a bridge across Knik Arm, expansion of the Port of Anchorage, and the massive Chuitna Coal Mine, also would directly affect some of the whale's most important habitat, he said.