When the Center for Biological Diversity's 2006 request to have Alaska's beluga whales put on the endangered list came up for consideration last April, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin questioned the scientific evidence that the population was declining and lobbied for a six month delay to count the whales.
The answer is in. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the whales, whose population declined by 50% in the 1990's, have shown no recovery despite the protections already in place. As such, the federal government determined on Friday that the "beluga whales species native to Anchorage, Alaska, is endangered and will require protection to survive."
"'NOAA scientists estimated the Cook Inlet beluga population at 375 for both 2007 and 2008,' NOAA stated. 'Estimates have varied from a high of 653 belugas in 1994 to a low of 278 belugas in 2005.'
The listing has the potential to affect major Alaska projects including an expansion of the Port of Anchorage, additional offshore oil and gas drilling, a proposed $600 million bridge connecting Anchorage to Palin's hometown of Wasilla and a massive coal mine 45 miles south of Anchorage.
Palin had opposed the endangered listing -- as well as one decreed for polar bears due to melting summer sea ice -- in part by questioning the science and saying the listings would hinder oil and natural gas drilling."
NOAA's decision to list whales means any federal agency that funds, authorizes, or carries out new projects or activities in the area must first consult with NOAA to determine the impact on the whales.
Friday's listing follows an accusation by the Center for Biological Diversity of stalling by the Bush Administration, citing federal law that required the identification of a critical habitat listing by last April.
NOAA has stated they will determine -- within one year -- the changes needed in the whales' habitat for their survival. In the meantime, the placement of the beluga whales on the endangered list provides for their protection according to NOAA scientists' assessment of the species' needs which supersedes Governor Palin's and the Bush Interior Department's interpretation of science and/or the balancing of priorities such as pending oil leases.
More on this topic at The Environmentalist