Cook Inlet Beluga Whales Score Major Victory

The genetically unique population of Cook Inlet beluga whales breathed a collective sigh of relief today when a federal judge struck down attempts by the State of Alaska to challenge the 2008 ESA listing of the Cook Inlet beluga whale as an endangered species. The judge’s ruling affirms that the best available science supports the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) conclusion that Cook Inlet beluga whales are in danger of extinction.

There is no question that Cook Inlet beluga whales are critically endangered—over the past 20 years, their numbers have plummeted from 1,300 to just 321. Even after subsistence whaling of the species was banned in 1999, the population continued to decline.  Ship strikes, noise pollution, and industrial development consisently threaten the health and habitat of this genetically distinct and geographically isolated population of belugas—which lives only in Alaska’s Cook Inlet.

NRDC and other environmental groups have been fighting for years to ensure protection for Cook Inlet beluga whales. In April 2006, we petitioned NMFS to list Cook Inlet belugas as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). NMFS finally listed the Cook Inlet beluga whale as endangered in April 2008 and designated more than 3,000 square miles of the Cook Inlet as critical habitat essential to the whales’ survival (NRDC members and activists alone sent 118,000 petitions supporting the endangered species designation).

However, on June 4, 2010 the State of Alaska filed a lawsuit challenging the listing of Cook Inlet beluga whales as an endangered species under the federal ESA. Alaska’s lawsuit inexplicably claimed that the belugas—which are at risk of going extinct in the next 100 years—do not need protection under the ESA. The State had long opposed listing Cook Inlet beluga whales as endangered under the ESA, and even opposed designating critical habitat for the belugas as required under federal law (NRDC members and activists sent over 43,000 letters to NMFS supporting the critical habitat designation). NRDC and other conservation groups intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of the Cook Inlet beluga whales.

The judge did the right thing today in upholding the endangered status of this iconic Alaskan species, which is famous for its enchantingly melodious song. His decision is also backed by sound science. In 2006, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) placed the Cook Inlet beluga on its Red List of endangered species. And the prestigious U.S. Marine Mammal Commission repeatedly requested NMFS list the Cook Inlet beluga as endangered under the ESA.

This decision not only ensures protections for one of the most endangered species on the planet, but also demonstrates that sound science and the rule of law can triumph over a reprehensible anti-wildlife agenda. And, most importantly, Cook Inlet beluga whales may finally have a chance at recovery.