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Alaska officials slam beluga decision

Belugas are toothed whales that grow to about 15 feet long. They are sometimes called sea canaries because of their vocalizations.

The federal government today placed the beluga whales in Alaska's Cook Inlet under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, concluding that a decade-long recovery program has failed to assure their survival.

"In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering," said James Balsiger, acting assistant administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The listing means any federal agency that funds or authorizes activities that may affect the whales in the area must first consult with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to determine the potential effects on the whales, the agency said. A federal action must not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.

The announcement brought immediate criticism from Alaska officials, including Mayor Mark Begich and Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd, who both say the beluga population is stable or even increasing, plus warnings from Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young that that the listing could adversely affect necessary development, including oil and gas exploration. The Alaska critics attacked the science offered by NOAA in support of its decision.

"Such a small number, 1 percent - perhaps less - of the world's belugas have historically ever lived in the waters surrounding Cook Inlet, and this is a deliberate targeting of an area vital to the Alaskan economy to protect a species that is increasing in population," Stevens said in a written statement.

"This announcement shows me the agency does not understand the implications of this listing on Alaska," said a written statement by Young. The decision "ignores science" and suggests NOAA "has its own agenda by basing their decisions not on science, but on whether or not they will get sued."

"This endangered listing could result in hugely expensive new requirements to Anchorage's wastewater treatment, which the EPA has long determined do not affect belugas," Begich said in a written statement. "And it could endanger the ongoing expansion of the Port of Anchorage, a vital lifeline for 80 percent of Alaskans and for our military."

According to NOAA, scientists estimated the beluga population in Cook Inlet at 375 both last year and early this year, compared with a high of 653 belugas in 1995.

The findings by the fisheries service conflict with claims by Gov. Sarah Palin, who has questioned scientific evidence that the beluga whale population in the waters near Anchorage continues to decline.

Palin, Republican presidential nominee John McCain's running mate, has strongly objected to the federal government's possible declaration of the whale as endangered.

The Cook Inlet beluga is one of five beluga whale populations in Alaska waters but the only one considered endangered.

NOAA said today the Cook Inlet population declined by 50 percent between 1994 and 1998 and "is still not recovering" despite restrictions on the number of whales that Alaska's Native population can kill for subsistence.

It said that recovery of the beluga whale has been hindered by development and a range of economic and industrial activities including those related to oil and gas exploration in the Cook Inlet, which lies between the Alaska and Kenai peninsulas.

The Interior Department has proposed making available oil leases in Cook Inlet as early as next year and in 2011, saying the waters have an estimated $1.38 billion worth of energy resources. Protection of the whale could hinder some of those activities.

The National Marine Fisheries Service "will identify habitat essential for the conservation of the Cook Inlet belugas in a separate rule-making within a year," said NOAA in a statement Friday.

Other beluga populations off Alaska inhabit Bristol Bay, the eastern Bering Sea, the eastern Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea

Daily New staff and wire reports