ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Six environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the National Marine Fisheries Service of moving too slowly to protect Cook Inlet's dwindling beluga whale population.
The groups, which filed the suit Monday in U.S. District Court, are trying to get the whales listed as endangered animals.
Federal biologists last year proposed listing the belugas as ''depleted'' under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The federal agency is expected to make a decision in a few weeks.
The environmental groups said they filed the lawsuit to force the agency to make a decision. A decision had been expected by early March.
The complaint charges the fisheries service and the U.S. Department of Commerce with violating the Endangered Species Act by ''not acting in a timely manner'' to determine a protective listing, according to the Center for Marine Conservation.
''This provides some insurance that they would make the decision in a timely way,'' said Jack Sterne, an attorney for Trustees of Alaska.
Ron Berg, the agency's deputy regional administrator in Juneau, said Tuesday the review is taking longer than anticipated. The agency has heard from various groups, including environmentalists and the oil and gas industry, about the protective listing proposal.
He said the agency's response is still in draft form. He refused to say what was in the report because it has not been made public.
Kris Balliet, Alaska director of the Center for Marine Conservation, said the agency likely is headed toward a depleted listing rather than the endangered listing they seek under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Balliet said an endangered listing is better because areas of critical habitat would be designated and development strictly monitored within those areas.
Over the past decade, the population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet has declined from about 1,000 to 357 last year. Overhunting is thought to be the main cause of the decline, but Balliet says other factors, such as oil and gas drilling and even shipping, could be a factor.
Ken Freeman, executive director of the Resource Development Council, said he doesn't think any listing is needed to protect the belugas. The RDC fears the higher-level protection would unnecessarily interfere with the oil industry and other commerce. He said a better response would be cooperation between hunters and federal officials to better manage whale hunts.
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