PUBLISHED: 6:20 PM on Wednesday, October 22, 2008
Palin says beluga whales' endangered listing 'premature'
The recent addition of Cook Inlet's beluga whales to the endangered species list was called a "premature" move by Gov. Sarah Palin last week.

Palin mentioned concern for the whales in a prepared statement but questioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's decision to protect the species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

  photo courtesy of National Oceanic and AtmosphericAdministration
"The state of Alaska has had serious concerns about the low population of belugas in Cook Inlet for many years. However, we believe that this endangered listing is premature," said Palin, who was campaigning in Ohio on Friday for Republican Presidential candidate John McCain (R-Az.)

Alaska supported the NOAA's 2000 decision to designate Cook Inlet's beluga whale population as "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Alaska's Fish and Game commissioner, Denby Lloyd, argues the region's beluga population has increased since federal legislation passed in 1999 prohibiting subsistence hunting of the species. Harvesting of belugas was blamed as the chief cause of the species decline during the 1990s.

Lloyd said the NOAA should instead continue studying Cook Inlet's whale population before coming to a formal decision and the state's interpretation of NOAA's research confirms such.

"We would have preferred that NOAA delay this endangered listing ... for a few years to get more population counts, and determine whether the cutback in hunting is working to help the beluga population recover," he said. "Our analysis of NOAA's data indicates that the population has been growing steadily in the last few years, just as studies had predicted."

Subsistence hunting of beluga whales ceased in 2000. NOAA predicted Cook Inlet's beluga population would begin increasing again in 2004, which according to NOAA findings has seen the region's beluga population increase from 278 whales to 375, or just more than 30 percent.

Lloyd said he does see a need for concern because less than 400 Cook Inlet belugas is still a small population, but he is optimistic numbers will continue to increase.

"We just aren't sure than an endangered listing, and all the legal requirements it brings with it is necessary to assure the health of this population at this time," he said.

Lloyd said he will continue to work with the NOAA in helping beluga populations recover.