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NOAA proposes habitat rule for belugas in Alaska's Cook Inlet

Federal regulators on Tuesday proposed designating more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the Inlet's beluga whales.

The proposed rule would provide an additional layer of protection for the roughly 300 remaining Cook Inlet belugas that were listed as endangered in October 2008, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"It means that we are looking more broadly than the species. We're also looking at its habitat," said Kaja Brix, director of protected resources for the Alaska office of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.

The proposed rule generated accolades from Alaska and Lower 48 environmental groups but was criticized by Gov. Sean Parnell, the state's congressional delegation, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and pro-business groups in Alaska.

The proposed critical habitat areas will comprise all of upper Cook Inlet, the coastal areas of western Cook Inlet and most of Kachemak Bay.

Environmentalists called it a positive step for the belugas' recovery. According to federal estimates, the Inlet's beluga population has declined from 1,300 animals in 1979 to 321 this year.

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