Status is Not Enough

Infamous for her “take no prisoners” stance on wildlife from wolves to polar bears, whales and more, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin objected in 2008 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Fisheries Service finally gave the Cook Inlet beluga whale—which numbered around 375, down from 1,300 in the early '90s—endangered status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Though the first petition for listing had been filed in 1999 by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) along with a host of conservation groups, and AWI in a later petition of 2007, Governor Palin perceived the beluga whales’ endangered status as “premature” and a threat to Alaska industry.

Despite endangered status in place, by June 2009 beluga whale numbers were still declining and critical habitat, an ESA requisite for an endangered listing, had not been designated. In December 2009, perhaps spurred by the threat of a CBD suit, NOAA issued notice that it intends to designate approximately 3,000 square miles of territory as critical habitat for the Cook Inlet belugas. This includes parts of Cook Inlet (the whale’s primary summer habitat), mid-Cook Inlet, the Western shore of lower Cook Inlet, as well as Kachemak Bay on the Eastern side.