Daniel Schulman–Last week, the state of Alaska announced it plans to mount a legal challenge to the listing of the Cook Inlet beluga whale under the Endangered Species Act. (Placing the belugas on the endangered list requires a review of federally funded or permitted activities that could affect the health of the whales, the establishment of a recovery plan, and the designation of “critical habitat.”) This marks the second time in a year that Palin’s administration has squared off with the federal government over an ESA listing. Over the summer, her administration sued Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne after his agency conferred threatened status on the polar bear.
In 1994, there were some 650 Cook Inlet belugas living off the coast of Anchorage, but their numbers were nearly halved by 1997. This sharp decline was largely attributed to overharvesting by Native hunters, and by 2005 this already small whale population reached an all-time low of 278, by one government estimate. Presently, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimate the number of Cook Inlet belugas at 375.
In 2000, the whales were protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but government scientists eventually concluded that this wasn’t enough. “In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering,” James Balsiger, the acting assistant administrator for the NOAA’s Fisheries Service, said in October, announcing that the whales had received endangered species protection.
Palin begs to differ. Her administration argues that that the belugas are faring just fine under the protections in place, and the population is even beginning to show signs of recovering. For this reason, the state of Alaska contends that additional regulation is unnecessary. “The State of Alaska has worked cooperatively with the federal government to protect and conserve beluga whales in Cook Inlet,” Palin said last week. “This listing decision didn’t take those efforts into account as required by law.”
At the heart of Palin’s objections are concerns that additional safeguards will interfere with oil and gas development, among other lucrative projects.