Palin Protests Federal Listing of Beluga Whales as Endangered
Again questions science behind an endangered species listing
The beluga whales of Alaska’s Cook Inlet are endangered and require additional protection to survive, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Friday. The ruling contradicts Alaska Governor Sarah Palin’s administration who has questioned the science showing a decline in the distinctive white species.
It was the second wildlife-themed rebuke Gov. Palin received from Washington this year. The governor had previously asked federal courts to overturn an Interior Department decision declaring polar bears threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Federal listing could stall oil and gas development
The decision means that before federal agencies can issue a variety of commercial permits, they must first consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine if there are potential harmful effects on the whales. The additional regulatory requirements have the potential to affect major Alaska projects including additional offshore oil and gas drilling, expansion of the Port of Anchorage, and a proposed bridge that would connect Anchorage to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and Ms. Palin’s hometown of Wasilla.
The Cook Inlet beluga whales are one of five populations in the United States and are considered a genetically distinct population of whales located only in this Alaskan inlet. The number of belugas in the inlet declined by almost 50 percent in the late 1990s, and “is still not recovering” despite restrictions on the number of whales that Alaska’s native population can kill for subsistence, said NOAA.
NOAA reported that recovery has been hindered by development and a range of economic and industrial activities including those related to oil and gas exploration.
“In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering,” said James Balsiger, NOAA acting assistant administrator.
Challenging endangered species listings nothing new for Palin
Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is no stranger to positions unpopular with environmentalists. The Republican nominee for vice president, has come under scrutiny for her waffling position on climate change and her administration’s failed effort earlier this year to prevent the polar bear from being listed as a threatened species.
As with the polar bear, Gov. Palin opposed the beluga listing in part because of its potential to restrict coastal and offshore oil and gas development. Back in August of 2007, the governor issued a written statement saying, “I am especially concerned that an unnecessary federal listing and designation of critical habitat would do serious long-term damage to the vibrant economy of the Cook Inlet area.”
The state does have serious concerns about the low population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet and has had those concerns for many years, Palin said in a statement. “However, we believe that this endangered listing is premature,” she said.
State Fish and Game officials intend to challenge NOAAs data and conclusions.
“We would have preferred that NOAA delay this endangered listing decision for a few years to get more population counts, and determine whether the cutback in hunting is working to help the beluga population recover,” said Denby Lloyd, Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Lloyd said that he was looking forward to “Our analysis of NOAA’s data indicates that the population has been growing steadily in the last few years, just as studies had predicted.”