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Cook Inlet beluga whale
San Francisco Chronicle, January 14, 2009

Alaska plans to sue over beluga whale protection
By Mary Pemberson, The Associated Press

Anchorage, Alaska -- The state will sue over increased federal protections for beluga whales in Cook Inlet, officials announced Wednesday.

The white whales were listed last year as endangered under the Endangered Species Act after federal scientists determined the whales were headed toward extinction.

The listing requires the designation of critical habitat for the whales, a recovery plan and a review of all federally funded or permitted activities in Cook Inlet. The city of Anchorage is on Cook Inlet.

The state said Wednesday that it wanted the listing decision withdrawn, adding that it believed state and federal laws apart from the listing were sufficient to protect the whales. The population is stable and beginning to recover, said Denby Lloyd, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Gov. Sarah Palin opposed the listing because of the impact it could have on major Alaska development projects, including oil and gas development and expanding the Anchorage port. She said in a statement that the state had worked cooperatively with the federal government to protect and conserve the whales.

"This listing decision didn't take those efforts into account as required by law," Palin said.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which pushed to get the whales listed, said Palin was putting the oil industry ahead of the whales.

"Gov. Palin seems more than willing to sacrifice endangered whales on the altar of oil companies," said Brendan Cummings, the center's oceans program director.

The population of the Cook Inlet belugas has been in steady decline for years. About 375 beluga whales were counted last summer in waters off Anchorage. Scientists say if nothing is done, the whales have a 26 percent chance of becoming extinct in the next 100 years.

The decline has been blamed on overharvesting by Alaska Native subsistence hunters before the hunt was curtailed nearly a decade ago. It was unclear why the whales, which may have numbered as many as 1,300 at one point, have not rebounded.

Federal biologists have listed 18 potential threats to the Cook Inlet whales, including whale poaching, food reduction, noise caused by oil and gas drilling, and coastal construction.

Five groups of beluga whales live in U.S. waters off Alaska.

© 2009 Hearst Communications Inc.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton