Palin’s War on Wildlife Takes to the Sea.

17 10 2008
Beluga whale photo from NOAA

Beluga whale photo from NOAA

Sarah Palin may have a new battle on her hands. With so many endangered animals left to endanger, and so little time, what’s a governor to do?

While Palin’s lawsuit against the Federal Government to keep the polar bear from protection as a threatened species is still pending, another pesky white northern critter has reared its head to plague our governor. The federal government has now placed the population of beluga whales that inhabit Cook Inlet under the protection of the endangered species act.

When I first came to Alaska, I would often visit a beautiful little pull-out on the Seward Highway in a spot known as Beluga Point. Beluga Point is an aptly named, rocky outcropping with windblown, sculpted trees, that looks over the wide expanse of Cook Inlet, the body of water that hugs the coastline around Anchorage and the surrounding area. It used to be fairly common, when looking out over the Inlet to see what at first looked like white-caps, but on closer inspection, turned out to be the bobbing white heads of Cook Inlet’s beluga whale pod. I remember one fourth of July, picnicking on a beach across the Inlet when the pod came by. They swam back and forth, no more than 20 feet away, rubbing their long shiny bodies on the gravel bed along the shore for a good scrub. The babies were plentiful, human-sized and grey. The belugas stayed for almost half an hour, looking at us periodically with large shiny eyes, while we ate sandwiches. This is why I love Alaska.

There is a relationship that people develop with the wild creatures of this land. Those belugas, that one pod, shares our home. You might be alone and contemplative on the shore, or you might be with a group of excited visiting relatives, and it might be different times of the year, but the belugas were the same. They came, they went, they visited, or they didn’t. That community is a community, and it is truly part of the place. They were made for the place; more so than us two-legged interlopers on the shore gawking with binoculars.

But since 1995, the beluga population in Cook Inlet began to take a turn for the worse. There were only about 650 animals at their peak. In the following years, their numbers began to decline noticeably and people started to worry. It became more ane more rare to see the belugas at Beluga Point. Some hunting of the whales had been allowed for traditional subsistence hunters. The practice was halted by Native villages. Laws were enacted to keep boat traffic from “harassing” the whales. The numbers declined. Studies were done. The numbers continued to decline. Questions began to be asked about the effects on the whales of sewage disposal, toxic runoff, and oil and gas exploration in the Inlet.

Uh-oh. As soon as anyone mentions oil and gas, you can bet the hackles of pro-development Alaskans stand straight up, and they start paying attention. This is why Palin is so opposed to saying that the polar bears are anything but healthy. They have the audacity to be living on the North Slope of Alaska, and the oil was there first. If you listen to Palin tell the story, you’d be worried that Alaska’s polar bears are multiplying so fast they’re going to take over the state. The fact that the arctic ice the polar bears need to hunt is melting at an alarming and unprecedented rate, the fact that animals are drowning because the ice is disappearing, the fact that males are attacking denning females and eating young polar bears to survive, is met by Palin’s administration stuffing their fingers in their ears, denying the scientific evidence, and litigation. We’re talking money here, and nobody is getting rich off polar bear powered vehicles. Nobody is heating their homes with polar bears. So, there is only one logical course of action. Sue the government, and deny the facts.

There are now only 375 beluga whales left in Cook Inlet. The whales are not recovering despite protections enacted over the last 10 years. If you plot the line on the beluga population graph, it’s easy to see where it’s going, and why they are now under federal protection.

The listing means any federal agency that funds or authorizes activities that may affect the whales in the area must first consult with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to determine the potential effects on the whales, the agency said. A federal action must not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.

What impact the ruling may have on oil and gas extraction in Cook Inlet, the proposed Knik Arm bridge or even municipal sewage disposal is still an open question.

Palin, of course, has questioned the scientific evidence that determined the whale population is in decline. She wants no part of giving the whales federal protection, especially at the dawn of the massive oil exploration projects scheduled to begin in Cook Inlet in the next few years. She has gone so far as to urge that the whale not be listed, and not receive federal protection, citing concerns over what this might do to the Cook Inlet economy. The whale has become an inconvenient speed bump in the road.

The listing 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

While polar bears are beloved by all, and their protection has been covered extensively by conservation groups, and to some extent by the mainstream media, Cook Inlet belugas are hardly the animal rock stars of the arctic. However, the national spotlight is now focused on Alaska as never before. Palin’s unlikely Vice Presidential nomination may actually be a blessing in disguise for these animals who otherwise might have declined in obscurity, fighting off a lawsuit that might have gone unnoticed by the humans in the Lower 48.

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Palin vs. Polar Bear – Round 2 (Ding!)

28 05 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actually, it’s more like Palin vs. Facts.  What’s a governor to do when facts get in the way?  Read on…

Rick Steiner, (University of Alaska Marine Advisory professor, and environmental superhero) through a public records request, has acquired an email that the Palin administration didn’t want you to see.  Basically, it says that yes, the Alaska state biologists DID agree with the Federal assessment leading to their listing (begrudgingly) of the polar bear as ‘threatened’ under the Endangered Species Act.  They agreed with this despite the Palin administration’s vehement opposition to the listing, and in direct conflict with Palin’s statement that the state biologists found nothing to support the ‘threatened’ listing…  Innnnteresting…

Cover-up, or just plain denial?   It reminds me of that classic Seinfeld line. I believe it was George Costanza who said, “It isn’t a lie if YOU believe it.”  And Sarah just keeps on believin’….so much so that she’s actually going to sue the government.  Yes, that’s right.  If you can’t handle the truth, just litigate it to death.

And despite Palin’s recent veto of $268 million dollars from the state budget, axing things like safety improvements at Klatt Elementary School, money for fire stations, road improvements, emergency services, etc., guess what survived the ruthless red pen?  $2 million to get a bunch of people in a room to talk about how scientists are “of differing opinions” about whether the melting of the polar ice cap will indeed affect the polar bears. Perhaps, we can make this an annual tradition. Next year I propose holding a summit to discuss whether putting a large flame under a pot of crab will result in dinner.  We can’t really be sure you know.  That’s like trying to ‘project into the future’. I mean, what are we – cooks or fortune tellers for crying out loud? 

And who’s paying for this $2,000,000 Flat Earth Society Conference?  You and me.  If someone handed you a $2 million check to spend on the state, where would you spend it?  I doubt many of us would put our money toward rehashing this issue that even the ‘petrol-philes” in the Federal Government can’t deny, lest they look like idiots.

But not us…we’ve got a state government that either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that they’re making us look like idiots. Again.

In the meantime, the polar bear above is one Alaskan bear that is blissfully ignorant of all this….he’s in the Alaska Zoo.  Regardless of the outcome of Sarah’s lawsuit, this may be the only place to see one in Alaska by 2050.





Polar Bears Out of the Box and On the List.

15 05 2008

It’s quite astounding, really. Even the Bush administration appointees who are the rank & file in the War on Science had to admit this one. They raised the white flag, laid down their weapons and couldn’t bring themselves to deny it. I’m referring to yesterday’s resolution to list the polar bear as a ‘threatened species’ under the Endangered Species Act. I confess, cynic that I have become, that I didn’t expect this one.

Here’s the quote from Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne that really blew me away. “The right decision, as tough as it was, was to list the bear.” Yeah…(hand on Kempthorne’s shoulder)…doing the right thing can be tough. Especially when you’re not used to it. Now granted, he went on to basically say that yes, we’ve listed the species as threatened, but we’re not actually going to do anything about global warming. But he did say, flat out, there’s “no disputing the science”. Wow.

But Alaska’s congressional delegation – all three of them – despite the fact that the science is even overwhelming enough to convince the Department of the Interior, have decided that they know just a little bit more about science than…..the scientists. They know just a little bit more than the government agency that told the actual truth and made “the right decision, as tough as it was”.

Ted Stevens pulled his head out of the sand long enough to bestow these words of wisdom, “They’re gonna say this is global warming. It has nothing to do with global warming. This is a concept called climate change. It’s a concept of a process that’s been going on for years… This species is not endangered.” I’m so glad we’ve begun to explore the ‘concept of the process’ of climate change in Washington that will lead to the extinction of Ted Steven’s job.

Lisa Murkowski is afraid. Of what? “I am afraid that this decision opens a Pandora’s Box that the Administration will now be unable to close,” she said. Pandora’s Box? Isn’t that the box that contained all the evils of mankind? Anger, greed, slander, lies, vanity… I think this administration opened that box a long time ago, Lisa. But fortunately, as we all remember, the last little treasure we got from Pandora’s Box was hope. So maybe Dirk Kempthorne’s admission, ineffectual as it may turn out to be, is a reminder of that last ingredient.