Alaska pols seek study to show beluga whales aren't endangered

ANCHORAGE — Two of Alaska's top politicians Tuesday said the state should finance an aggressive round of scientific research of Cook Inlet's beluga whales to counter a federal conclusion that the whales are endangered and need special habitat protections.

Congressman Don Young and Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan, speaking at a joint news conference at City Hall, also said they are asking the government to extend for 60 days a comment period on designating critical habitat for the whales. The Anchorage Assembly earlier unanimously passed a resolution asking for the extension on comments, which now is set to expire Feb. 1.

Sullivan said federal agencies should also hold a public hearing in Anchorage.

"Virtually every department in the city and every business in the region has a stake in this," Sullivan said, citing potential restrictions on discharges from Anchorage's water and sewer utility, noise limits at Stevens International Airport, air quality issues, oil and gas development, expansion at the Port of Anchorage and a proposed Knik Arm bridge.

"All those things come into effect with this beluga designation," Sullivan said. "Every one of those projects could be in jeopardy, and we cannot allow that to happen."

Federal scientists say the Cook Inlet belugas are a genetically distinct species and don't intermingle with beluga populations in other parts of Alaska and the Arctic. Their numbers have plummeted since the early 1980s, and a study released in 2007 projected a one-in-four chance the Cook Inlet belugas could go extinct within 100 years if nothing is done.

Young called that "false science."

"I personally don't believe this is a different species of beluga whale (than those) in Kotzebue that we kill and eat many times up there," he said. "I don't believe there's a bit of difference."

But opponents of the listing need more ammunition, Young said, and the state is the logical source to finance new science on the whales.

"The state should have the science available to (contradict) what comes forth," he said. "Let's see whether they're right or not, but not accept what they tell us because we have no way to argue with it."

An Anchorage spokeswoman for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of several groups that petitioned the government to list the whales as endangered, said there's no question that Cook Inlet's whales "are genetically distinct and geographically isolated."

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