Politics beats science: Alaska's Cook Inlet beluga whale protections delayed

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Bush Administration continues to drag its heels on endangered species cases

(04/21/2008) - SAN FRANCISCO – Today conservation groups called upon the Bush administration to stop delays in listing the Cook Inlet Beluga whale under the federal Endangered Species Act. The groups’ actions came in response to a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announcement that delays for six months a decision whether to list the whale under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“The experts agree – the science to list the Cook Inlet Beluga is clear,” said Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper. “But the oil industry and their friends in the Bush & Palin Administrations prefer to blur the science to meet their political needs. The system of checks and balances is badly broken.”

Cook Inlet beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is a genetically distinct and geographically isolated population whose numbers have plummeted since the 1980’s when NMFS scientists estimated the Cook Inlet beluga population numbered approximately 1,300 whales; the National Marine Fisheries Service’s most recent surveys show the whale’s population now hovers around 375 animals. The whale’s status is so perilous that the scientific experts at the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in 2006 placed the Cook Inlet beluga on its Red List for critically endangered species.

“This appears to be part of a trend to bend science to politics in Alaska marine resource management,” said John Schoen, Senior Scientist of Audubon-Alaska. “We’ve seen the same thing with protections for the polar bear, and it begs the question: why have these laws if our federal agencies are forced to ignore them?”

Cook Inlet is the most populated and fastest growing watershed in Alaska, and subject to many development pressures from oil and gas production, sewage discharges, and contaminated runoff and spills, which potentially affect the Beluga whale and its habitat. Furthermore, several massive infrastructure projects – including the proposed Knik Arm Bridge, the Port of Anchorage Expansion, the Chuitna coal strip mine and the Port MacKenzie expansion - will directly impact some of the whale’s most important habitat.

The various risks to the Cook Inlet beluga – and the bureaucratic reluctance to take action – forced numerous groups, including Cook Inletkeeper, Alaska Center for the Environment, National Audubon Society - Alaska State Office, North Gulf Oceanic Society, Alaska Community Action on Toxics, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Kachemak Bay Conservation Society, and the Friends of Potter Marsh and the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge to petition NMFS in 2007 to list the Cook Inlet beluga as threatened or endangered under federal law. Petitioners were represented by the nonprofit law firm Trustees for Alaska.

“Contrary to the rhetoric from listing opponents, an ESA designation will not curtail responsible development. Instead, a listing decision will simply ensure that federal agency actions do not jeopardize the whales or their habitat,“ said Karla Dutton, Defenders of Wildlife.

“There is simply no credible scientific dispute; the Cook Inlet beluga whale is one of the most endangered marine mammals in the United States,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Today’s decision is yet another example of Bush administration favoritism to the oil industry trumping sound science and leaving sacrificed whales in its wake .”

Cook Inlet is a unique setting that supports the southernmost of Alaska’s five beluga populations. The Cook Inlet offers a true estuary environment which is very different from the beluga habitats to the north. According to the NMFS, no similar habitats exist in Alaska or anywhere else in the United States.

“There are a lot of bogus reasons not to protect these animals but they’re just diversion tactics,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Endangered Species Project at NRDC. “In the end, this is about the rule of law. The Endangered Species Act is absolutely unambiguous: the National Marine Fisheries Service was required to make a final decision this month. This administration has shown time and time again that they will not address endangered species issues, no matter how clear the science may be.”

Learn more about Defenders' efforts to protect the Cook Inlet Beluga whale population.

Federal Register Notification of 6 month delay.


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Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With more than 1 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit www.defenders.org.

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Contact(s):

Bob Shavelson, Cook Inletkeeper, (907) 299-3277
John Schoen, Audubon-Alaska, (907) 276-7034
Karla Dutton, Defenders of Wildlife, (907) 863-4461 (cell)
Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 366-2232 x304; (951)768-8301 (cell)
Josh Mogerman, NRDC, (312) 780-7428 (773) 531-5359 (cell)

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