The Bush administration Friday designated a small, isolated population of beluga whales in Alaska's Cook Inlet as endangered, rejecting arguments from Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that the small, white whales were on their way to recovery.
The National Marine Fisheries Service decided to extend federal protections to these whales near Anchorage after their numbers declined nearly 50% in the 1990s. The whales failed to rebound despite a decade-long program to revive the species.
"In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering," said James W. Balsiger, acting director of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
As a practical matter, the new protections mean that new offshore oil drilling, construction of a new bridge, and other industrial activities that involve federal dollars or oversight will have to be shown as harmless to the estimated 375 beluga whales remaining in local waters.
The decision came after Palin won a six-month postponement last year, arguing that she and state scientists believed the endangered status was "unwarranted" and that "we've actually seen the beginnings of an increase in their population."
On Friday, Palin released a statement saying: "The state of Alaska has had serious concerns about the low population of belugas in Cook Inlet for many years. However, we believe that this endangered listing is premature."
Earlier, Palin had said that "an unnecessary federal listing and designation of critical habitat would do serious long-term damage to the vibrant economy of the Cook Inlet area."
The postponement of the decision gave federal biologists another season to conduct aerial surveys, which confirmed that the beluga population remained at 375 and showed no sign of increase.
Estimates have ranged from a high of 653 belugas in 1994 to a low of 278 in 2005.
Whale biologists don't know why the population has not rebounded since a 1999 federal plan curtailed the beluga hunt by Alaska Native tribes, said Barbara Mahoney, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist in Anchorage.
Subsistence hunters have only taken five Cook Inlet whales since 1999 -- none in the last two years.
No hunting will be permitted through 2012, she said, a ban that will be extended if the population falls below 350 whales.
Denby S. Lloyd, Palin's fish and game commissioner, said in a statement that Alaska officials would have preferred that the government "delay this endangered-listing decision for a few years to get more population counts and determine whether the cutback in hunting is working to help the beluga population recover."
The Cook Inlet beluga population, one of five populations recognized in U.S. waters, is the most urban.
More than half of Alaska's residents live in and around Anchorage, releasing minimally treated municipal sewage and polluted urban runoff into the inlet.
Other potential stresses are offshore oil and gas development, two busy ports with ship traffic, an active salmon gill-net fishery and predation from killer whales, federal scientists said.
"We have a dozen oil rigs in the inlet now and municipal waste that gets primary treatment only," Mahoney said.
Additional offshore oil development is under consideration for Cook Inlet, which lies between the Alaska and Kenai peninsulas.