Palin's War on Wildlife Takes to the Sea
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Sarah Palin may have a new battle on her hands. With so many endangered animals left to endanger, and so little time, what's a governor to do?
While Palin's lawsuit against the Federal Government to keep the polar bear from protection as a threatened species is still pending, another pesky white northern critter has reared its head to plague our governor. The federal government has now placed the population of beluga whales that inhabit Cook Inlet under the protection of the endangered species act.
When I first came to Alaska, I would often visit a beautiful little pull-out on the Seward Highway in a spot known as Beluga Point. Beluga Point is an aptly named, rocky outcropping with windblown, sculpted trees, that looks over the wide expanse of Cook Inlet, the body of water that hugs the coastline around Anchorage and the surrounding area. It used to be fairly common, when looking out over the Inlet to see what at first looked like white-caps, but on closer inspection, turned out to be the bobbing white heads of Cook Inlet's beluga whale pod.
I remember one fourth of July, picnicking on a beach across the Inlet when the pod came by. They swam back and forth, no more than 20 feet away, rubbing their long shiny bodies on the gravel bed along the shore for a good scrub. The babies were plentiful, human-sized and grey. The belugas stayed for almost half an hour, looking at us periodically with large shiny eyes, while we ate sandwiches. This is why I love Alaska.
There is a relationship that people develop with the wild creatures of this land. Those belugas, that one pod, shares our home. You might be alone and contemplative on the shore, or you might be with a group of excited visiting relatives, and it might be different times of the year, but the belugas were the same. They came, they went, they visited, or they didn't. That community is a community, and it is truly part of the place. They were made for the place; more so than us two-legged interlopers on the shore gawking with binoculars.
But since 1995, the beluga population in Cook Inlet began to take a turn for the worse. There were only about 650 animals at their peak. In the following years, their numbers began to decline noticeably and people started to worry. It became more ane more rare to see the belugas at Beluga Point. Some hunting of the whales had been allowed for traditional subsistence hunters. The practice was banned. Laws were enacted to keep boat traffic from "harassing" the whales. The numbers declined. Studies were done. The numbers continued to decline. Questions began to be asked about the effects on the whales of sewage disposal, toxic runoff, and oil and gas exploration in the Inlet.
Uh-oh. As soon as anyone mentions oil and gas, you can bet the hackles of pro-development Alaskans stand straight up, and they start paying attention. This is why Palin is so opposed to saying that the polar bears are anything but healthy. They have the audacity to be living on the North Slope of Alaska, and the oil was there first. If you listen to Palin tell the story, you'd be worried that Alaska's polar bears are multiplying so fast they're going to take over the state. The fact that the arctic ice the polar bears need to hunt is melting at an alarming and unprecedented rate, the fact that animals are drowning because the ice is disappearing, the fact that males are attacking denning females and eating young polar bears to survive, is met by Palin's administration stuffing their fingers in their ears, denying the scientific evidence, and litigation. We're talking money here, and nobody is getting rich off polar bear powered vehicles. Nobody is heating their homes with polar bears. So, there is only one logical course of action. Sue the government, and deny the facts.
There are now only 375 beluga whales left in Cook Inlet. The whales are not recovering despite protections enacted over the last 10 years. If you plot the line on the beluga population graph, it's easy to see where it's going, and why they are now under federal protection.
The listing means any federal agency that funds or authorizes activities that may affect the whales in the area must first consult with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to determine the potential effects on the whales, the agency said. A federal action must not jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species.