Cook Inlet beluga whales should be on endangered list, federal judge rules

The Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 22, 2011 

For the second time in less than six months, a federal judge on Monday threw out a lawsuit by the Parnell administration challenging an endangered species listing, this time involving Cook Inlet's beluga whales.

In the latest ruling, the chief judge of the Washington, D.C., District Court, Royce Lamberth, said the state failed on all its points to show that the National Marine Fisheries Service improperly designated belugas as endangered in the Cook Inlet region.

That follows a similar decision in June by another federal judge in Washington, Emmet Sullivan, who said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service properly designated polar bears as endangered. The state is appealing that decision.

Bob Shavelson of Cook Inletkeeper, one of the organizations that intervened in the beluga case in support of the federal fisheries service, said the ruling demonstrated that the state's lawsuit was "a waste of taxpayer money."

"The state would be better served paying scientists instead of lawyers and letting the scientists do science and not be handcuffed by politics," said Shavelson. He was referring in part to a Parnell administration order, issued in connection with beluga recovery efforts, that barred state scientists from publicly disagreeing with administration policy.

In a prepared statement, Alaska Attorney General John Burns expressed disappointment with the ruling.

State officials say they are concerned that recovery efforts for belugas, if too strict, could threaten oil and gas development and shipping in the Inlet. Escopeta Oil Co., which recently announced a major gas discovery in Cook Inlet, had intervened in the lawsuit on the side of the state.

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