Hunting for beluga delay

Assembly finances effort to postpone whales’ endangered status

Posted: Monday, October 23, 2006

Cook Inlet’s struggling population of beluga whales could be headed for extinction, say environmentalists pushing to see the cetaceans listed on the Endangered Species Act.

But the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly recently voted to spend up to $25,000 and join the Municipality of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Sustina Borough in a legal effort to block that listing, at least temporarily.

A resolution approved Oct. 10 by a 5-3 vote authorized Mayor John Williams to engage the firm of Robertson, Monagle and Eastaugh to seek postponement of the ESA listing determination until a more detailed scientific study of the whale population can be conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, and to support efforts to encourage Congress to increase NMFS funding for the study.

The money was contingent on the other two municipal assemblies approving the same expenditure.

Of concern to the three municipalities is that federal approval of an endangered status for the whales would require the NMFS to designate habitat for the whales, and that could have an impact on development in and around Cook Inlet.

Although nationally only a tiny fraction of the literally tens of thousands of development projects reviewed at some level under provisions of the ESA since it became law in 1973 have actually been curtailed, that the possibility exists remains an economic worry to municipal leaders and industries in Alaska and elsewhere.

In recent years, federal funding for Cook Inlet beluga whale research has been cut significantly, from $260,000 in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, to $85,000 in 2004 and 2005, according to the Federal Marine Mammal Commission.

Environmental advocacy and research groups such as Cook Inlet Keeper and the North Gulf Oceanic Society argue that the fastest way to secure such funding for NMFS is to have the whale listed as endangered, and that postponing the ESA determination while hoping more research funding somehow appears poses further risks to the whale population in Cook Inlet.

In March 1999, several plaintiffs brought a lawsuit in U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia seeking to compel an “endangered” designation for the whales under the Endangered Species Act, instead of the “depleted” status approved by the federal government.

In 2000, the borough joined Anchorage and Mat-Su (and the U.S. Department of Commerce and NMFS) as defendants, ultimately prevailing when the case was dismissed. It was an attorney with Robertson Monagle and Eastaugh who represented the borough in that case.

The NMFS has estimated that the population of inlet belugas in the mid-1980s was between 1,000 and 1,300 animals. Today that population is between 300 and 400, and perhaps smaller.

Native harvesting has been the most significant factor in the population decline. According to the NMFS, Native Alaskans were taking an average of 77 whales per year between 1995 and 1997, a rate of decimation that led directly to the court filing seeking the endangered status in 1999.

The dismissal ended that effort then, but by 2000, the subsistence harvest had been cut back to about one animal a year, and the population was expected to rebound.

It hasn’t.

Earlier this year, the NMFS announced it was initiating a status review of the whales, and received a petition from the Trustees of Alaska asking that the whales be listed as endangered.

The mayor said pursuing an endangered or threatened designation absent supporting scientific data or even a conservation plan would not further the goal of preserving the whales.

The assembly was split on the resolution.

Assembly member Gary Superman, of Nikiski, said he supported the resolution’s aim at encouraging more research, but warned that the ESA process could have an impact on the economy and “had the very real potential” to jeopardize resource development projects in and around the inlet.

Superman noted that resource development in the inlet area during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s during which the whale population remained healthy, and there was no research to suggest development was impacting the whales. He also said he believed that the legal efforts by the law firm the resolution would help fund might well lead to whale research funding.

Assembly member Dan Chay, of Kenai, spoke, he said, from the perspective of the whale.

“I think the whale is not like some newt in some bog in Idaho,” he said. “It’s more like a canary in the coal mine. This endangered species act is part of a process going on for quite a while. As a community, we have spent more time blaming environmentalists and trying to stay the process, than embracing the problem.”

Assembly members Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, Grace Merkes, of Sterling, Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, Ron Long, of Seward, and Superman voted for the resolution. Members Deb Germano, of Homer, and Milli Martin, of Diamond Ridge, joined Chay in opposing the measure. Assembly member Margaret Gilman abstained; her husband Blaine is a director of the legal firm.

Hal Spence can be reached at harold.spence@peninsulaclarion.com.

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