Court rejects efforts to strip beluga whale protections

A pod of Beluga whales. PHOTO COURTESY NATIONAL MARINE FISHERIES SERVICE.

Decision offers some hope for dwindling populations of endangered cetaceans

By Summit Voice

A federal judge this week rejected an attempt by Alaska to strip Cook Inlet beluga whales of Endangered Species Act protections. Last spring, the National Marine Fisheries Service designated critical habitat for the whales despite state’s lawsuit.

“Today’s decision again clarifies that the belugas are in serious trouble. Now it’s time to get serious about finding solutions. Legal sideshows by the state are getting us nowhere,” said Sue Libenson, executive director of the Alaska Center for the Environment.

“This is clearly a case where science and the rule of law prevailed,” said Taryn Kiekow, staff attorney with Natural Resources Defense Council.  “The Cook Inlet belugas are an iconic species in Alaska and it is now absolutely essential that we protect them and their habitat if the population is to survive.”

The whales were listed as an endangered species in 2008. In today’s decision, the judge said that the best available science supports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s determination that Cook Inlet beluga whales are in danger of extinction. While hunting was initially considered the cause of the significant decline of belugas in the Inlet, the population has continued to decline after hunting ceased in 1999.

The Alaska Center for the Environment, the Center for Biological Diversity, Cook Inletkeeper, Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the North Gulf Oceanic Society, represented by Trustees for Alaska, intervened in the lawsuit to defend the beluga listing against the state’s attack.

Once numbering 1,300, the Cook Inlet beluga population currently has only 300 to 400 individuals. This diminished population faces many threats. Cook Inlet, which borders the city of Anchorage, is the most populated and fastest-growing watershed in Alaska, and it is subject to significant offshore oil and gas development in beluga habitat. Additionally, the proposed billion-dollar Knik Arm Bridge will directly affect the belugas, and port expansion and a proposed giant coal mine and coal-export dock would also destroy key beluga habitat.

“The Cook Inlet beluga whale is one of Alaska’s most iconic wild animals, and we need to do all we can to prevent its extinction,” said Karla Dutton, Alaska director for Defenders of Wildlife. “A healthy beluga population in Cook Inlet is essential to the health of the inlet itself and the people and wildlife who depend on it. We’re gratified that the court sided with the scientists and kept in place the vital protections these whales need.”

While there are four other beluga whale populations in Alaska, Cook Inlet belugas are a genetically unique and geographically isolated population of whales that live in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. The whale’s population decline has been so severe that in 2006 the International Union for Conservation of Nature placed the Cook Inlet beluga on its “red list” of endangered species. The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission repeatedly requested that the Fisheries Service list the species under the Endangered Species Act.

“This case shows once again that the state of Alaska’s war on wildlife is a losing battle,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska Director Rebecca Noblin. “The state is wasting taxpayer money on frivolous challenges to Cook Inlet beluga protections that are based on solid science.”

“Today’s decision again clarifies that the belugas are in serious trouble. Now it’s time to get serious about finding solutions. Legal sideshows by the state are getting us nowhere,” said Sue Libenson, executive director of the Alaska Center for the Environment.

“This is clearly a case where science and the rule of law prevailed,” said Taryn Kiekow, staff attorney with NRDC.  “The Cook Inlet belugas are an iconic species in Alaska and it is now absolutely essential that we protect them and their habitat if the population is to survive.”

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One Response

  1. One can’t help but think that the continual waste of taxpayer money by the state, is from the short sightedness of the politicians who are in the pockets of the various lobbyists from the O&G & Coal mining interests. Exploiting the mineral wealth at the expense of the environment is becoming too costly in terms of $$$$ to both sides. As much as lobbying is a two way street, it has become one way insofar as who benefits the most, with the public & environment coming out on the short end. Good to see that there are still those who care, respect the rule of law, have the guts to stand up and fight for what is right. KUDOS to everyone up there in Alaska who came to the aid of the Beluga’s in Cook inlet.

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