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NOAA Proposes To Protect 3,000 Square Miles As Critical Habitat For Endangered Whales

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- The federal National Marine Fisheries Service today took an important step toward protecting critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act for the Cook Inlet beluga whale in Alaska by proposing to designate more than 3,000 square miles of the imperiled whale’s habitat for protection. The overdue proposal comes on the heels of a formal notice of intent to sue by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Once habitat is designated, federal agencies are prohibited from taking any actions that may “adversely modify” it. Species for which critical habitat has been designated have been found to be more than twice as likely to be recovering, and less than half as likely to be declining, as those without it.

“If we quickly act to designate and protect the critical habitat of the Cook Inlet beluga, this highly imperiled whale has a real chance of recovery,” said Brendan Cummings, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

In October 2008 the Fisheries Service listed the whale as endangered over the objections of then-governor Sarah Palin. The listing occurred following petitions and litigation by the Center and other organizations. However, rather than designate critical habitat for the beluga at the time of listing as required by the Endangered Species Act, the Fisheries Service stated that it would defer habitat protection for a year. That year came and went with no action by the Fisheries Service, and on October 29, 2009 the Center formally notified the agency that it would file a lawsuit to force the overdue designation.

“A species as critically imperiled as the Cook Inlet beluga whale should not have to endure further delay before its habitat is truly protected,” said Cummings.

Today’s proposal triggers a public comment period and likely public hearings before the rule is finalized and takes legal effect.

The Cook Inlet beluga whale is a genetically distinct and geographically isolated population whose numbers have plummeted in recent decades. Recent surveys show the Cook Inlet beluga whale’s population now hovers between 300 and 400 animals, down from an estimated population of approximately 1,300 whales in the 1980s. The Cook Inlet beluga whale is one of five populations of beluga, or white whales, in Alaska.

The original decline of the Cook Inlet beluga was likely caused by overhunting, but the population has failed to rebound since hunting was curtailed in 1999, indicating that other factors are interfering with its recovery. Most likely the whale is being harmed by noise and pollution from industrial activities in Cook Inlet.

Cook Inlet is the most populated and fastest-growing watershed in Alaska, and is subject to significant proposed offshore oil and gas development in beluga habitat. Additionally, the proposed Knik Arm Bridge, a billion-dollar boondoggle, will directly affect some of the whale’s most important habitat. Port expansion and a proposed giant coal mine and coal export dock would also destroy key beluga habitat.

The proposed critical habitat rule would designate waters in upper Cook Inlet as protected habitat for the whale. When the beluga was more abundant it also frequented the lower Inlet. If the species is to recover to its former abundance its habitat in the lower Inlet will need protection as well.

“While today’s proposal is an important step toward protecting the Cook Inlet beluga, protections for the species remain far from complete,” added Cummings. “Critical habitat designation should be promptly finalized and expanded to include the lower Inlet. Moreover, the Fisheries Service needs to prepare a recovery plan and stop so freely handing out permits to industry allowing the beluga’s habitat to be developed and disturbed.”

In January, 2009, former governor Sarah Palin announced that the state of Alaska would sue the federal government to overturn endangered species protections for the beluga. While her successor has shown a similar hostility to wildlife protection, the state has yet to file the lawsuit.

More information on the Cook Inlet beluga whale can be found at

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