The proposed critical habitat designation for Cook Inlet beluga whales drew more than 91,000 responses before the comment period closed last month. Alaska political leaders in particular have questioned the science used to support the beluga's endangered listing, like their declining population and genetic distinction.
"It's good science," counters Craig Matkin, a marine mammal biologist with the North Gulf Oceanic Society. "If these animals go away they're not coming back in your lifetime and my lifetime."
Political leaders fear National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service's critical habitat designation will harm development in the area to encompass more than 3,000 square miles, including the upper Cook Inlet, from just south of Kalgin Island north to and encompassing Knik and Turnagain arms, as well as Kachemak Bay and a three-mile wide strip along the western shore of Cook Inlet.
Proponents are afraid the endangered listing and critical habitat designation might not be enough to help save the species that is scientifically proven to be genetically unique.
According to scientists, there is little known about the population of Cook Inlet belugas. The only certainties are that the population has been declining and the sub-species is genetically different than all other belugas.
Brad Smith, a biologist with the fisheries service, said it's too early in the process to know when and if concerns from lawmakers will be adopted.
"We have gotten congressional letters and letters from state and local governments asking for exclusion," he said.
Smith said about 80,000 of the more than 91,000 responses were form letters.
"We will go through those requests individually," he said. "We may or may not adopt any of those recommendations."
Barbara Mahoney of the fisheries service protected resources division said that the public comments are not votes. It isn't a popularity contest.
"The public comments we're looking for have supporting documentation if they want to make a change," she said.
The plan is to have the critical habitat for Cook Inlet belugas designated by October, Smith said.
At this point there is no question whether a critical habitat will be designated, said Kaja Brix, director of protecting resources for the fisheries service. It is congressionally mandated.
"Some critical habitat will be designated. It's not an option not to designate it," she said.
Under the Endangered Species Act there is a two-pronged protection for all listed species: no federal agency can jeopardize the existence of the species or adversely modify its critical habitat. During the process of listing a species as endangered, economic considerations are not considered in the decision.
However, once listed as endangered, a critical habitat needs to be designated within one year and the economic impact of the designation must be taken into consideration. A critical habitat and a recovery plan are outlined in the Endangered Species Act as a way to recover the species.
"There is a high probability that Cook Inlet Belugas will be extinct," Mahoney said.
Belugas were listed as endangered in 2008 after the population had decreased greatly from thousands to hundreds over a 30-year period.
In designating the area, the fisheries service took into account noise (belugas use sound more than other whales), water quality, access between habitat areas, water turbidity (belugas seem to favor cloudy water), and escape terrain (places to hide from predators such as orcas). Also considered was the whales' primary prey -- king, sockeye, chum and coho salmon, and eulachon -- as determined by stomach samples from harvested whales and analysis of the whales' blubber.
Biologists have been able to determine the general distribution of belugas in the inlet with aerial surveys conducted every June, as well as information from satellite tagging and traditional knowledge from Alaska Natives, particularly in Tyonek. They have found that belugas could be present in any part of their Cook Inlet range at any time of year, though they tend to spend a great deal of time in the upper inlet.
Beluga whales tend to congregate around the mouths of the region's medium- to high-flow anadromous streams, and are particularly attracted to stream mouths and estuaries that include an area of mud flats.
Last month the state House of Representatives passed a resolution opposing the critical habitat designation in Cook Inlet for beluga whales. The resolution, mainly sponsored by Rep. Charisse Millett, says that the designation is unnecessary and could harm the economy. It moved to the state Senate for consideration.
"I told her I would carry her resolution on the Senate floor if it got that far," said Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, of a conversation he had with Millett.
Wagoner said that the resolution, if passed, may not impact the designation but at least it is a statement of how some state leaders feel.
"I'm not in favor of any part being critical habitat," he said. "My take on it is I'm not sure no matter what the studies say, they've done enough study to say belugas are in trouble."
That's the party line other legislators are towing, too.
"I have concerns about the documentation getting us in the position," said House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, adding that the fisheries service's designation is based on hype and not fact. "I certainly think that more information needs to be gathered before they make such a change of life in Cook Inlet."
Chenault said another reason for the resolution opposing the critical habitat for belugas is that state heads feel left out of the process.
"We want the federal government to know we are a state and we should control our own destiny," he said.
Both Peninsula politicians said they are skeptical of the science determining that the Cook Inlet Belugas are a special sub-species of the whale.
"Is there scientific documentation that these beluga whales are only found in Cook Inlet?" asked Chenault. "If they're no different than any of the other beluga whales is there really cause for concern?"
Gov. Sean Parnell released his statements questioning the "overly broad" designation and methodology in the economic analysis. He asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to reconsider the proposed area and extend the public comment period yet again.
All three of Alaska's congressional delegates, Democrat Sen. Mark Begich, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Republican Rep. Don Young, met with the fisheries service chief to express their concerns with the designation, especially with the economic impact.
"It's probably the uncertainty of where we'll be," Chenault said. "There could be no changes or it could be totally on the other side of the spectrum. They have stated if nothing else this will slow down projects within the Cook Inlet. If you slow down a project long enough you can kill a project."
Wagoner said the designation is another "tool in the environmentalist tool box."
"What are they going to say or do to a tanker or ship that comes into Cook Inlet with a whale on the bow like the one in Valdez? They say it's not going to be a problem but I don't believe them," he said, referring to the dead humpback that arrived in Port Valdez on a tanker last June.
In the fisheries service analysis, it was estimated some $200,000 to $600,000 total would be spent by agencies in consultation fees and other services to meet the critical habitat requirements.
Mahoney said projects would only require consultation if it uses federal money, is being completed by a federal agency or needs a federal permit.
"We are not planning to shut down any fishery or regulate the fishery," she said. "We will not be affecting the commercial, sport or personal-use fishery because they are state run."
Shipping in Cook Inlet will not be closed by this designation and transportation across the Inlet will not be impacted, she said.
However, oil-drilling projects in Cook Inlet would require consultations with the fisheries service because federal permits are needed. And in those cases the federal permitting agency like the Environmental Protection Agency would be responsible to consult with the fisheries, not the developer, Brix said.
Mahoney said current developments in Cook Inlet, like the Pebble Mine and Port of Anchorage, are already consulting with the fisheries service.
"There is a lot of fear but the people we're already talking to are aware of not trying to jeopardize the recovery efforts of whales," she said.
The Port of Anchorage is currently under consideration for exemption from the critical habitat requirements for military purposes.
Citing statistics used at the public hearings, Mahoney said that as of this January, the fisheries service has conducted 17,052 consultations with qualifying agencies on critical habitat nationwide. Out of those consultations only 41 were determined to adversely modify the habitat and put the species in jeopardy. Only one consultation nationwide was determined to affect the habitat but not put the species in jeopardy.
Donna Darm, the fisheries service's assistant regional administrator for protective resources for the Northwest region in Seattle, said that critical habitat designation has not affected operations or development in the region, which protects every salmon-bearing stream in Washington, Oregon and California.
"Our experience in the Northwest region is that the separate requirement of not modifying the critical habitat is not an issue," she said. "Our experience here is that people get very excited about critical habitat designation but when it comes down to implement it, that critical habitat designation doesn't make as big of a difference as people think it's going to."
Muffy Walker, regulatory branch chief for the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in Seattle, resonated Darm's reaction.
"For us, critical habitat designation in and of itself has not further impacted our projects," she said, adding that it's the endangered species listing as well as the habitat designation that has altered the process. "About 95 percent of all our permitting actions have been impacted by ESA listings."
The Army Corp of Engineers is one of the federal agencies that acts as a liaison between private developers that fall under the federal nexus and the fisheries service.
She said the impact of both these things has impacted projects permitting-wise.
"It has added significant time delays to our ability to make permit decisions," she said. "Our informal consultations average 90 days from sending the packet to getting a final response."
But, Walker said, "we do not deny very many actions." About 95 percent of projects are determined to have no impact on the endangered species or habitat.
The Army Corp of Engineers' goal is to have the majority of projects consulted and permitted within two months, she said.
If the project is determined to put an endangered species in jeopardy, which is rare, it is automatically denied by the permitting agency. In those cases, Walker said, developers usually choose to alter plans so they are not impacting the species.
"The whales have not impacted us quite as much as the listing of the salmon species," she said.
According to the state House resolution opposing the designation, the Cook Inlet beluga population rebounded from 278 in 2005 to 321 in 2009 after a cooperative harvest management plan was instituted, a four percent increase per year.
However, according to the fisheries service Web site, that statistic left out that the population of Cook Inlet Belugas was at 375 in 2007 and 2008 and decreased to 321 in 2009.
But Matkin said specific numbers in this case do not matter and it's difficult for non-scientists to interpret the research on belugas.
"What really matters is when you take a series of years and trend it," he said.
Whales cannot be counted one by one, Matkin said, so scientists have to take a series of years and statistically estimate the population.
"The reality is if you read the science there's a negative trend from the last 10 years," he said.
Matkin explained that initially, biologists thought the decline of belugas in Cook Inlet was due to the subsistence harvest but after that was restricted and halted several years ago, the population of whales did not rebound.
"Certainly one of the contributing factors as to why the beluga population declined," he said. "Clearly there's more to it than the subsistence harvest."
He said that the critical habitat designation is important in figuring out the reasons behind the decrease.
"What they've designated as critical habitat also looks at other areas belugas have been in recent years before they declined," Matkin said, adding that food, predation, disease and contaminants are all things that could be affecting the beluga whale population. "There's a lot of different factors to suss out what some of the problems might be. It's become this complicated issue because there's this whole ecological system we're looking at to make sure everything is healthy enough for the belugas to survive."
There might be some grey areas surrounding beluga whales but certain things politicians are concerned about are not in those areas, Matkin said.
"There's a lack of scientific information on Cook Inlet belugas but the lack is not on numbers or genetics," he said. "It's clear the numbers are not rebounding and that they're genetically distinct animals."
He said biologists have done genetic testing by examining the mitochondrial DNA in cells repeatedly and the science shows that belugas in Cook Inlet are not interbreeding with any other beluga.
"They've been separated from all other belugas in Alaska since the last ice age," he said.
Mike O'Meara, a founding board member of conservationist group Cook Inletkeeper, said that the weakening beluga population could be indicative of other problems in the ecosystem.
"A good reason to believe the Cook Inlet beluga is not only the canary of the sea but the canary in a coal mine," he said.
O'Meara said the listing and critical habitat designation are "long passed due."
"It's a great thing it's not going to harm development at all and perhaps it will allow us to see the beluga population come back around," he said.
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at email@example.com.
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