Conservation groups challenge state lawsuit over Inlet belugas

'WAR ON WILDLIFE': Protection is sought for Cook Inlet whales.

August 4, 2010 

Conservation groups filed a request Wednesday to challenge the state in its lawsuit seeking to overturn the listing of beluga whales off Alaska's largest city as endangered.

The groups, including Defenders of Wildlife and Natural Resources Defense Council, are seeking to uphold the Endangered Species Act listing of a few hundred beluga whales in Cook Inlet. A half-dozen groups filed their request in federal court in Washington, D.C., the same court where the state filed its lawsuit in June.

If the request is granted the groups will be able to present their arguments for why the white whales swimming off Anchorage's coastline need additional protections under the ESA.

The state maintains that the listing is unnecessary because the population has stabilized and conservation efforts already in place are working. But conservation groups say the belugas need the extra protections the listing brings and accuse the state of wasting taxpayer money by launching frivolous lawsuits instead of supporting the findings of government scientists and helping the whales recover.

Karla Dutton, Defenders of Wildlife's Alaska director, said the Cook Inlet belugas won't recover without the help the ESA provides.

"The governor is using precious state funds and staff resources to block conservation efforts for the beluga," she said.

In the late 1970s, the Cook Inlet beluga population was estimated at 1,300 animals. The most recent estimate is 321 whales. The whales have not rebounded after subsistence hunting by Natives was mostly eliminated in 1999.

The National Marine Fisheries Service conducted a review before the Cook Inlet belugas were listed as endangered in 2008. The listing means that the whales will likely go extinct if nothing changes. The agency also conducted an economic analysis that found the listing would not have much of a detrimental impact on the state.

State officials aren't convinced, particularly since the listing means that federal agencies will have to consult with NMFS to make sure permitted activities will not harm the whales. That raised alarm bells with city and state officials who are concerned about the listing's impact on an ongoing $750 million project to expand the Port of Anchorage, where products and goods that reach about 80 percent of Alaskans are offloaded.

Gov. Sean Parnell's spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said there would be substantial cost to the state if it did nothing about the beluga listing. Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the court likely will allow the groups to intercede because they have been involved in beluga conservation for a long time. That would allow the groups to present their views.

She said the state is waging an "irrational war on wildlife."

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