Court rejects additional protection for Cook Inlet beluga whales

Posted: Wednesday, August 22, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Cook Inlet beluga whales will not join the endangered species list.

In a lawsuit brought by six environmental groups and one individual, U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson of Washington, D.C., ruled late Monday that the National Marine Fisheries Service acted within the law to designate Cook Inlet belugas as ''depleted'' but not endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Robertson said the groups did not prove that NMFS officials acted arbitrarily in rejecting the higher level of protection.

''We're obviously very disappointed in the judge's decision,'' said Jack Sterne of Trustees for Alaska, the law firm represented the groups and former Native subsistence hunter Joel Blatchford. The groups may appeal, Sterne said.

Sterne said plaintiffs presented evidence that most state and federal marine mammal experts agree that Cook Inlet beluga whales, genetically distinct and geographically isolated from other beluga populations, are at risk of extinction.

''The judge ignored that evidence in his decision,'' Sterne said.

Once estimated at up to 1,300 whales, the Cook Inlet beluga population has dropped since the 1980s to 300 to 400 animals.

The fisheries service in June 2000 rejected adding Cook Inlet belugas on the endangered species list. The agency instead opted to continue to designate the belugas as ''depleted'' under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Since the depletion was caused by overharvesting, the agency said, the problem could be remedied by limits on whale hunting now in place without resorting to the Endangered Species Act.

Blatchford joined with the Alaska Center for the Environment, the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the National Audubon Society, Ocean Conservancy, Alaska Community Action on Toxins and the Center for Biological Diversity in suing the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Three Alaska municipalities -- Anchorage, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Matanuska Susitna Borough -- intervened on behalf of NMFS, as did two development groups, the Resource Development Council and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Municipal officials feared placing beluga whales on the endangered species list because it would have added a layer of regulation to Cook Inlet activities, from oil and gas development to shipping to the Port of Anchorage and wastewater discharge.

Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch called the court decision ''positive and scientifically sound.''

Development groups hailed the decision for not fixing something that was not broken.

Tadd Owens, Resource Development Council executive director, said most people agree that hunting had lowered the numbers of whales and additional measures were not necessary

''From our point of view, it was, 'Why go that step?''' he said.

''We don't have to take 16 steps more when the fix doesn't get any better,'' said Alaska Oil and Gas Association director Judy Brady.

In a press release, Audubon Alaska said overhunting may have been the primary cause of the whales' decline, but the population is so small now that any number of factors -- both human-caused and natural -- could drive the population to extinction.

Robertson rejected the contention that NMFS improperly applied the law in making its decision.

Though the whale's habitat has changed in response to municipal and industrial activity, the judge wrote, there was no record to indicate the changes had a harmful effect on the whales.

Robertson also said the groups did not prove that the current whale population would continue to drop once hunting was restricted.

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