Cook Inlet Belugas Retain ESA Protection

A federal judge in November upheld the listing of Alaska’s Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), rejecting a bid by the state of Alaska to overturn it. Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia wrote that beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet were “nearly wiped out by a catastrophic spree of subsistence whaling between 1994 and 1998” by Alaska Natives. While there are four other beluga whale populations in Alaska, Cook Inlet belugas are a genetically unique and geographically isolated population and thus are considered to be a “distinct population segment” for listing purposes under the ESA. The whale’s population decline has been so severe that in 2006, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature placed the Cook Inlet beluga—which number between 350 and 400—on its "red list" of endangered species. In connection with the ESA endangered designation, these belugas are afforded 3,016 square miles of marine and estuarine environments, considered by scientists to be essential for the whales’ survival.