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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