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Cook Inlet Beluga Whales Correctly Listed As Endangered, Judge Rules

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Alaska's Cook Inlet beluga whales were correctly listed as endangered, a federal judge ruled Monday, rejecting a state lawsuit that claimed the listing will hurt economic development.

Judge Royce C. Lambeth of U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., said the National Marine Fisheries Service properly followed requirements of the Endangered Species Act and used the best science available in making its determination.

Cook Inlet beluga whales did not bounce back after a decade, despite a ban on subsistence hunting blamed for depleting their numbers, he said.

"When the best available science predicts that a recently enacted ban on subsistence hunting will reverse the abrupt depletion of a species, a decade without any noticeable recovery in the species population should raise a concern that the true cause of its decline has not been fully addressed," Lambeth wrote.

Alaska Attorney General John Burns said in a prepared statement that the decision was disappointing.

"We maintain that the listing process was defective because it did not sufficiently involve the state or consider the conservation measures already in place to protect Cook Inlet belugas," he said. "We are reviewing the decision and considering further options."

The state unsuccessfully sued to overturn the listing of polar bears as a threatened species and is suing to overturn restrictions on commercial mackerel and cod fishing in the western Aleutian Islands aimed at protecting endangered Steller sea lions.

Rebecca Noblin, an Anchorage attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of six environmental groups that intervened in the case, said Lambeth's beluga decision shows the state is wasting taxpayer money on a frivolous challenge.

"It's clear that a species that has dropped from 1,300 to less than 400 is in danger of extinction," she said. "It's not surprising the court upheld NFMS' decision."

Cook Inlet stretches 180 miles from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska.

Beluga whales, which can reach 15 feet long, are a high-profile species. The white whales feed on salmon, smaller fish, crab, shrimp, squid and clams. In late summer, belugas often can be spotted from highways leading from Anchorage, chasing salmon schooled at stream mouths.

The Cook Inlet population dwindled steadily through the 1980s and early `90s, Lambeth wrote, and the decline was accelerated between 1994 and 1998 when Alaska Natives harvested nearly half the remaining 650 whales in only four years.

The National Marine Fisheries Service initially determined that controlling subsistence hunting would allow the population to recover. But in October 2008, after a second listing petition had been filed, the agency declared belugas endangered. The state sued, and Escopeta Oil Co., which has drilling interests in Cook Inlet, intervened in the case.

The state argued that belugas were already protected by other environmental laws and that the fisheries service failed to consider state conservation programs designed to improve the habitat and food supply of belugas.

Lambeth said most of the efforts cited by the state address larger conservation goals and have only incidental effect on the beluga's chance for survival. Other aspects of state plans were unfunded, he noted.

The state said the listing would deter commercial fishing, oil and gas exploration, and tourism, and could affect operations at Alaska military installations. The state claimed the fisheries service disregarded and failed to properly respond to information the state provided regarding stability of the population.

Lambeth rejected the state's arguments and said the state appeared to be expressing its disagreement with the fisheries service's results rather than the process the agency used.

"The record amply reflects, however, that the service considered the statutory factors and articulated a rational response for its listing determination, grounded that decision in the best scientific data and provided a full opportunity for public comment before publishing its final rule," he wrote.

The listing means federal agencies, before issuing commercial permits, must first consult with the service to determine potential harmful effects on the white whales.

The state also objects to the agency's designation of 3,013 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical marine habitat for belugas. The designation excludes the Port of Anchorage. The judge did not rule on that separate issue.

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