Wildlife group to sue feds over Inlet beluga protections

COOK INLET: Review took rather longer than expected, feds say.

October 29, 2009 

An environmental group that has pressed the federal government to provide maximum protection for Cook Inlet beluga whales said Thursday it intends to sue.

The issue is over designating critical habitat to help the whales that swim the waters off Alaska's largest city recover. The whales were listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act a year ago, meaning they likely are headed toward extinction.

Brendan Cummings, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration missed an Oct. 22 deadline to designate critical habitat. The group Thursday filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue.

"Unfortunately, as the beluga continues to decline, NOAA is really dragging its feet in carrying out these necessary measures to protect and ultimately recover the beluga," Cummings said.

Barbara Mahoney, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Anchorage, said the agency intended to meet the deadline but the review of critical habitat, which includes an economic analysis, took longer than expected. The review is at NOAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., she said.

"We hope to have it out as soon as possible," she said.

The state of Alaska opposes the listing and the designation of critical habitat. It is concerned about the potential economic impact the listing will have on development in and around Cook Inlet.

Gov. Sean Parnell said Thursday the state's position is unchanged: "Frankly, we think they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. We think those protections are adequate." Critical habitat designation would not stop development in and around Cook Inlet but would mean that projects needing federal permits, such as the expansion of the Port of Anchorage, would undergo an additional layer of review to make sure they do not hurt the animals' chances of recovery.

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