Protection requirements for Cook Inlet belugas are silly

Mike Nizich

Congress passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 to safeguard species from extinction. No one questions that reasonable and prudent measures should be taken to avoid extinction, especially when the threat is posed by human activity.

In recent years, however, the act has become the weapon of choice for environmental groups to thwart resource and economic development activities they oppose. Projects within the habitat of a listed species must undergo extensive consultation and analysis before approval.

In Alaska alone there are 19 ESA-listed species, with another nine species being considered for listing. They run the gamut from eiders to herring to walrus and their habitats blanket Alaska's entire coastline and some interior land.

The State of Alaska is alarmed at the recent proliferation of listings and petitions to list and we are concerned about some of the policies and methods used to make such decisions. We are troubled by an increased reliance on computer population modeling based upon overly conservative assumptions. We object to listing decisions that are made despite extremely small likelihoods of extinction over extended timelines of 50, 100, or even hundreds of years. (In the case of beluga whales in Cook Inlet, population models were used to predict risk out to 300 years. This is too far into the future to model with any certainty.)

Defining the risk of extinction is also important. Current National Marine Fisheries Service policy states that a species with greater than a 1 percent risk of extinction over 100 years qualifies for ESA listing. A species could have a 98.9 percent chance of not going extinct, but would still be listed. This is simply too conservative a threshold.

And we caution against setting recovery goals that may be unachievable and much more stringent than needed to alleviate the risk of extinction. To be de-listed, a species must be shown as fully recovered with all threats to its continued survival eliminated.

For beluga whales in Cook Inlet, federal agencies say they are likely to require that the whale population be stabilized at more than 800 -- more than have ever been counted with current survey methods -- and there must be no risk of falling below that number in the future. These goals make it nearly impossible to ever de-list these whales. The eastern stock of Steller sea lions remains threatened under ESA, despite achieving recovery goals and reaching high population levels, due to similar overly stringent requirements.

A listing should only be made if it will benefit the species. Both the polar bear and the Cook Inlet beluga whale are currently protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The recent ESA listings provide little additional protection. Instead, they add a lengthy bureaucratic process and invite legal challenges that stand between Alaskans and responsible, safe resource development.

The State of Alaska will continue to watch for decisions that are based on speculative predictions or which are unreasonable. Pressing for credible science and reasonable listing decisions is in the best interests of the species and the public.

In the case of the recent Cook Inlet beluga whale listing, the State of Alaska is preparing a legal challenge to this decision. In the meantime, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will continue to work with NMFS to mitigate the impact of the listing decision on the residents of Southcental Alaska and assist local governments and other stakeholders with navigating the consultation processes this decision imposes.

Mike Nizich is chief of staff to Gov. Sarah Palin.