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Cook Inlet Beluga Whales

Good news came out of Alaska recently when the Center for Biological Diversity announced that the State of Alaska’s challenge to “Endangered” status of Cook Inlet Beluga Whales had been rejected.

On November 21 of this year, a federal judge rejected the state of Alaska’s 2010 lawsuit that tried to strip Endangered Species Act protections for Cook Inlet beluga whales. The judge decided that the best available science supports the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s determination that Cook Inlet beluga whales are in danger of extinction. While hunting was initially considered the cause of the significant decline of belugas in the Inlet, the population has continued to decline after hunting ceased in 1999.

beluga whale 1The Alaska Center for the Environment, the Center for Biological Diversity, Cook Inletkeeper, Defenders of Wildlife, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the North Gulf Oceanic Society, represented by Trustees for Alaska, intervened in the lawsuit to defend the beluga listing against the state’s attack.

Once numbering 1,300, there are now only 300 to 400 Cook Inlet belugas. This diminished population faces many threats. Cook Inlet, which borders the city of Anchorage, is the most populated and fastest-growing watershed in Alaska, and it is subject to significant offshore oil and gas development in beluga habitat. Additionally, the proposed billion-dollar Knik Arm Bridge will directly affect the belugas, and port expansion and a proposed giant coal mine and coal-export dock would also destroy key beluga habitat.

While there are four other beluga whale populations in Alaska, Cook Inlet belugas are a genetically unique and geographically isolated population of whales that live in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. The whale’s population decline has been so severe that in 2006 the International Union for Conservation of Nature placed the Cook Inlet beluga on its “red list” of endangered species. The U.S. Marine Mammal Commission repeatedly requested that the Fisheries Service list the species under the Endangered Species Act. The whales were finally listed as an endangered species in 2008.

“The Cook Inlet belugas are an iconic species in Alaska and it is now absolutely essential that we protect them and their habitat if the population is to survive,” said Taryn Kiekow, staff attorney with NRDC.

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Alison Wheatley

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