January 15, 2009

State Seeks To Block Alaskan Beluga Whale Protection

Alaska's government said Wednesday it plans to issue a challenge to block federal protections for a struggling population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet, a mature oil-producing basin.

The decision comes just five months after suing to keep polar bears off the U.S. threatened species list.

The energy-rich state believes the Endangered Species Act protections for belugas announced in October by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are unwarranted, according to former vice presidential hopeful Gov. Sarah Palin.

The state issued a news release announcing that a 60-day notice of intent to sue had been sent to NOAA.

"The State of Alaska has worked cooperatively with the federal government to protect and conserve beluga whales in Cook Inlet," the Republican governor said. "This listing decision didn't take those efforts into account as required by law."

Thirty years ago, there were once as many as 1,300 Beluga whales swimming in Cook Inlet, a glacier-fed saltwater channel running from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska. But NOAA said that number has dropped to about 375 since then that time.

Environmental groups have strongly protested Alaska's announcement it would challenge the endangered listing.

Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said Governor Palin has again demonstrated either a complete lack of understanding or lack of concern over the plight of endangered species.

Overhunting by the area's Alaskan native population is believed to have caused the decline in the beluga population, federal scientists said.

But Doug Vincent-Lang, an official at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said Alaska officials believe the whales are recovering due to some recent controls on hunting and that the main threat has been addressed.

Still, state and several municipal governments and business groups have stated that an endangered listing will hamper business in Alaska's most densely populated region.

They've argued that among the affected activities would be offshore oil and gas operations in the mature Cook Inlet basin. Major Cook Inlet oil and gas operators are Unocal, Marathon Oil, ConocoPhillips and Chevron.

In August, the Palin administration sought to overturn the threatened listing for the polar bear, arguing that listing polar bears as a threatened species will hurt Alaskan oil and gas exploration, fisheries and tourism.


On the Net: