Beluga whale endangered

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The beluga whales of Alaska’s Cook Inlet are endangered and require additional protection to survive, the government declared Friday, contradicting Gov. Sarah Palin who has questioned whether the distinctive white whales are actually declining.

It was the Republican vice presidential candidate’s second environmental slap from Washington this year. She has asked federal courts to overturn an Interior Department decision declaring polar bears threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The government on Friday put a portion of the whales on the endangered list, rejecting Palin’s argument that it lacked scientific evidence to do so.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that a decade-long recovery program had failed to ensure the whales’ survival.

“In spite of protections already in place, Cook Inlet beluga whales are not recovering,” said James Balsiger, NOAA acting assistant administrator.

The decision means that before federal agencies can issue a variety of commercial permits, they must first consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service to determine if there are potential harmful effects on the whales.

That 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.

The state does have serious concerns about the low population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet and has had those concerns for many years, Palin said in a statement. “However, we believe that this endangered listing is premature,” she said.

Palin in April successfully lobbied for a six-month delay in a listing decision until a count of the whales this summer could be included in deliberations.

That count showed no increase over 2007 numbers