Bush Administration to Gov. Palin: Beluga Whale in Alaska is Endangered

Beluga whales are now listed as an endangered species.

Beluga whales are now listed as an endangered species.

Alaska’s Gov. Sarah Palin has questioned scientific evidence that the beluga whale population in the waters near Anchorage is declining. In fact last summer she urged the federal government not to list the whale as endangered, citing concerns of what a listing might do to the Cook Inlet economy.

But today the U.S. Government replied with a decisive counter, declaring the beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet an endangered species. The findings by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration trigger a rigorous regimen to protect the whales, dwindled to an estimated 375 from their 1995 high of 653.

The decision by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service could trump a decision by the U.S. Interior Department to make oil leases available on Cook Inlet, where energy analysts see an estimated $1.38 billion worth of resources.

“In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering,” said James Balsiger, NOAA’s acting assistant administrator. The agency added that oil and gas exploration had hindered the whale’s existence.

As the Associated Press noted, this is the second run-in Palin has had with the Bush administration over the Endangered Species Act. Earlier, the governor, now Republican vice presidential candidate, had asked the courts to overturn an Interior Department decision declaring polar bears threatened.

Bush administration to Gov. Palin: Beluga whale in Alaska is endangered

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NOAA Lists Cook Inlet Beluga Whales as Endangered

October 17, 2008

NOAA today announced that the Cook Inlet beluga whale population near Anchorage is in danger of extinction, and has been listed as an endangered species.

“In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering,” said James Balsiger, NOAA acting assistant administrator for NOAA’s Fisheries Service.

Listing the Cook Inlet beluga whales means any federal agency that funds, authorizes, or carries out new projects or activities that may affect the whales in the area must first consult with NOAA’s Fisheries Service to determine the potential effects on the whales. A federal action must not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.

In 2000, NOAA declared the Cook Inlet beluga population depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In response to a petition submitted by the Trustees for Alaska on April 20, 2006, the agency proposed on April 20, 2007, that Cook Inlet beluga whales be listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The act requires a final determination by Oct. 20, 2008. This announcement is the result of NOAA’s scientific review of the proposal to list Cook Inlet belugas.

The Cook Inlet beluga population declined nearly 50 percent between 1994 and 1998, based on annual scientific surveys. NOAA scientists estimated the Cook Inlet beluga population at 375 for both 2007 and 2008. Estimates have varied from a high of 653 belugas in 1994 to a low of 278 belugas in 2005.

Despite restrictions on Alaskan Native subsistence harvest of Cook Inlet belugas starting in 1999, the population is still not recovering. Between 1999 and 2006, Alaska Native hunters took a total of five Cook Inlet beluga whales for subsistence. No beluga whales were harvested in 2007 or 2008.

Cook Inlet belugas are one of five populations of belugas recognized within U.S. waters. The other beluga populations inhabit Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea, and the Beaufort Sea. Of the five stocks of beluga whales in Alaska, the Cook Inlet population is considered to be the most isolated, based on the degree of genetic differentiation and geographic distance between the Cook Inlet population and the four other beluga stocks.

The recovery of the Cook Inlet whales is potentially hindered by strandings; continued development within and along upper Cook Inlet and the cumulative effects on important beluga habitat; oil and gas exploration, development, and production; industrial activities that discharge or accidentally spill pollutants; disease; and predation by killer whales. The agency will identify habitat essential to the conservation of Cook Inlet belugas in a separate rulemaking within a year.

NOAA expects the final rule on this decision to be published in the Federal Register on Oct. 22. A pre-publication version of the rule is available now on NOAA’s Fisheries Service Alaska region Web site.

NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources.

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One response to “Bush Administration to Gov. Palin: Beluga Whale in Alaska is Endangered

  1. Palin hometown a window into her environmentalism

    By MATT APUZZO, Associated Press Writer Matt Apuzzo, Associated Press Writer – 52 mins ago

    AP – Long before John McCain made Gov. Sarah Palin his running mate and before her views on global warming became a campaign issue, Palin’s environmental priorities were crystallized in a city where she was mayor and where development long has trumped conservation.

    Palin declared Wasilla “open for business,” and business rushed in: Dozens of strip malls sprung up along the city’s two glacial lakes.

    The costs of such fast — and sometimes haphazard — growth can be seen even from Palin’s lakefront home. Once-pristine Lake Lucille is plagued by high levels of phosphorous, which chokes off oxygen from the salmon and trout. Scientists put the blame on nearby development.

    Palin refined her pro-business attitudes after becoming governor in 2006. Faced with choosing between development and the environment, she has sided more often than not with business interests:

    _She helped kill a ballot initiative that would have blocked a massive new gold and copper mine from being built near the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery.

    _She challenged the listing of the polar bear and Cook Inlet beluga whale as endangered species. The listings might have threatened the state’s oil and gas industry.

    _Her administration helped kill a bill banning water pollution near where fish spawn.

    _She started a committee to address global warming. But with oil companies contributing the largest percentage of the state’s greenhouse gases, her committee set no goal for reducing emissions. Unlike other states, Alaska’s climate change priority is focused on ways to adapt to warmer temperatures.

    In a state where oil, gas, mining and fishing are among the biggest industries, her pro-business mind-set often puts her at odds with environmentalists.

    Yet when thinking green did not jeopardize jobs or growth, she has been a leader. She pushed for $250 million in renewable energy research and an additional $60 million in rebates for Alaskans to make their homes energy efficient.

    In Wasilla, being pro-business was necessary. When Palin took office as mayor in 1996, the region’s 10.3 percent unemployment rate was one-third higher than the state’s and twice that of Anchorage.

    Palin gave people what they wanted: jobs that did not require an hourlong commute to Anchorage, 44 miles to the south, or monthlong stints on the frigid North Slope oil fields. She supported business-friendly tax policies that, coupled with Wasilla’s cheap land and limited development restrictions, made the city attractive to big box retailers.

    “There used to be a stop sign right at the main — well, it’s hard to explain what the main intersection is. You can’t even tell anymore,” said Gary LoRusso, a Wasilla real estate agent and surveyor who moved to Alaska in the 1980s.

    In Palin’s first two years as mayor, the city handed out more land-use permits than ever. Population grew 25 percent on her watch, and the city became increasingly dependent on its sales tax.

    Now, all that asphalt sends storm water rushing into the city’s creeks and lakes, along with occasional garbage. Scientists have noted diseased salmon and excessive levels of bacteria, petroleum and sediment in the water.

    The retail crush finally cost the city its biggest attraction this year, when officials permanently moved the start of the Iditarod sled dog race to a more rural setting, citing Wasilla’s “less desirable” development.

    “It could have been such a nice city,” LoRusso said. “We didn’t have to grow this way. Now we’re stuck with it.”

    Garvan Bucaria, a retired Forest Service biologist who has called for more stringent environmental codes in Wasilla, does not blame Palin for the sprawl. She was not the first pro-development mayor, or the last, in what he calls a “rubber stamp” town.

    His take on Palin: “There was no vision.”

    Environmentalists lobbed similar criticism when, as governor, Palin proposed giving every Alaskan $1,200 from state oil proceeds to help cover higher energy costs. Critics called it shortsighted, said it did nothing to promote conservation and said some money should be spent to reduce consumption.

    At the Republican convention, supporters chanted “drill, baby, drill!” Palin has questioned whether humans have played a role in global warming and has said it is not important to know the cause. That latter point has puzzled even some of the people her administration has asked to advise her climate change committee.

    “If it’s all just a natural, cyclical thing, maybe we should just all go home and read a book,” said Kathie Wasserman, an adviser to Palin’s climate change committee.

    Palin resists regulations that will hurt average citizens, said Larry Hartig, Palin’s environmental commissioner. But she will make a tough call if it is the right one, he said. Faced with increasing pollution, Palin restricted the use of old two-stroke engines on the Kenai River. Fishermen strongly opposed the limitations but Hartig recalls the governor telling aides: “This is what we need to do, but people are not going to like it.”

    The independent Kenai Watershed Forum credits the decision with reducing oil pollution by 66 percent in one year.

    “The constituency that she plays well to, Joe Six-Pack or whatever, this was a decision that negatively affected the average person,” said Robert Ruffner, the watershed group’s director.

    Early in her term, Palin invited environmental groups to her office. But Kate Troll, an adviser to the climate change committee, has been disappointed. Palin brought the pro-business mind-set with her from Wasilla to the governor’s office, Troll said.

    If Palin makes energy an issue in the White House, like Vice President Dick Cheney has, Troll expects that mind-set to continue.

    “She errs on the side of development,” Troll said. “Would she carry that forward to being vice president? Yes, more than likely. She is who she is.”

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