Beluga Critical Habitat Goes into Effect

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Beluga Critical Habitat Goes into Effect

Over 3000 miles of critical habitat established in Alaska....

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Effective Wednesday, two areas comprising 3,013 square miles are designated critical habitat for Cook Inlet beluga whales. 

"The critical habitat designation is their entire habitat that they require to breed or feed or take care of their young," said Carole Holley, Alaska Co-Director for Pacific Environment.

The National Marine Fisheries Service believes there are currently about 320 Cook Inlet beluga whales. The species was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2008. The state filed a lawsuit challenging the listing, and the designation also prompted fears that it would cripple development.

"There are lots of federal acts that we have to jump through before a development project can occur," said Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell.

Illegal harvests in the early 1990s crippled the Cook Inlet Beluga population, according to Doug Vincent-Lang, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Endangered Species Coordinator. He says once the hunting stopped, the population began to rebound.

"It was interesting because at the time when those populations got down to 275, 300 they were actually petitioned to be listed under the Endangered Species Act and they were chosen not to be listed," Vincent-Lang said.

It's not just beluga whales that the state has issues with being on the Endangered Species List. Polar bears, northern sea otters, Steller sea lions and the proposed ringed seals all have environmentalists and the state butting heads.

"I think it's a misrepresentation that the state is against the Endangered Species Act," said Vincent-Lang. "We're just against the new application of this act, and we do not believe that this new application of the act is really what congress intended when they passed the act."

Alaska has become the battleground for heated debate over how the Endangered Species Act should be applied.

"The Endangered Species Act is being misused. It's being used as a land use planning tool rather than a species protection tool," Parnell said.

Should species be listed only when they are facing an imminent threat, or should they get added protections when there are perceived threats in the future? The polar bear is at the center of this debate. The bears are listed as threatened. Although populations are up from the mid 1900s when they were heavily hunted, projected sea ice loss is prompting many to worry the population is in danger again.

"We've lost 40 percent of our annual sea ice around the Arctic in the last 30 years," said Margaret Williams, Director of the U.S. Arctic Program for the World Wildlife Fund. "That's a huge, huge loss of habitat for this species, so it's really not quite correct so say that we are listing the polar bear too soon."

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says its track record of managing wildlife is nearly perfect-- only the Eskimo Curlew has gone extinct in Alaska. Just because it's not on the Endangered Species List, doesn't mean it's not managed, Vincent-Lang said.

"You know we do the right things to make sure those populations remain viable. We have a constitutional and statutory responsibility to do that," he said.

Under the Endangered Species Act, citizens can keep tabs on wildlife populations.

"Sometimes the government doesn't quite do its job, and sometimes they need a nudging from the people to remember what their job is," said Rebecca Noblin with the Center for Biological Diversity.

People can petition the federal government to list a species, and the government is required to review the species and make a decision.

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