Politics & Government

Alaska lawmakers line up against whale habitat proposal

WASHINGTON — If there's one thing Alaska's congressional delegation can agree on, it's a distrust of the Endangered Species Act and a belief it could ruin the state's economy.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Democrat Sen. Mark Begich and Republican Rep. Don Young met Friday to express their concerns with Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency is in the midst of determining whether to designate more than 3,000 square miles of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for beluga whales.

A spokeswoman for the agency called the meeting productive, but wouldn't elaborate on the delegation's concerns. Lubchenco declined to be interviewed after the meeting.

"She at least knows that we're all three together on this," Murkowski said of the delegation's united, bipartisan front on the matter. In recent months, they've been joined by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, whose administration has begun intervening in some of the litigation surrounding Endangered Species Act findings in Alaska.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and NOAA listed Cook Inlet belugas as endangered in 2008. Their population dropped to an estimated 320 last year from about 1,300 whales in 1979. The proposed critical habitat areas identified Dec. 1 would include all of upper Cook Inlet, the coastal areas of western Cook Inlet and most of Kachemak Bay.

Such a designation fails to take into consideration the economic impact on everything from fisheries, the port of Anchorage and the oil and gas industry, Begich said.

"As you deal with decisions in the water — what can happen and what cannot happen — there are winners and losers, economically," he said.

Added Murkowski: "We could not have imagined that at this point in time, we would be, as a state, threatened by theses ESA listings," she said. "Whether it's the golden loon, the murrelet, or the stellar sea lions or the ice seal, the ring seal, the spotted seal, the polar bear . . . or the beluga. The feeling back home is that we are under siege by the agencies using the Endangered Species act as a tool to literally shut down our state."

Their conversation took place in a somewhat unusual setting for a discussion about the Endangered Species Act: Young's personal office, which is decorated with more than a dozen trophies from his successful hunting trips.

In their meeting, Young stressed his concerns with the independent scientific review of the agency's findings on the whales and other animals that are being considered for an Endangered Species listing.

They want to know more about the process, Young said. "I question anything they do," Young said. "I really do. I don't believe the science that they use is good. They use the term the 'best science available.' But that's the worst they could have. What if the science isn't available? So they could make all this gobbledygook up."

Later, he joked that the whales may simply not want to go to the inlet anymore.

"Did anyone ask the whales?" Young said. "They're not there, so they're endangered. And we did it. Maybe there's another reason. Did the scientists take a look at that? No. We're at fault. We're always at fault if something isn't going the way the agency thinks it should go. And if it's going the other way, it's nature."