Whalin' Palin

She may be off the national stage, but the Republican empress continues to ravage America's great wilderness state. Her latest target? Beluga whales.

Published February 23, 2009 11:37AM (EST)

The 180 watery miles from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage known as Cook Inlet are a tough place for a beluga whale to make a living.

In the summer, when glacially fed streams and rivers wash fine sediment into the water, the turbidity makes the water opaque. The relatively small white whales, made famous to children everywhere in the Raffi song "Baby Beluga," use echolocation to find food and navigate their cloudy surroundings. The belugas send out noises until they bounce off something, like sonar in a submarine. They are the most vocal of all whales, and their frequent high-pitched twitters have earned them the affectionate nickname the "sea canary."

Looking for food, the belugas in Cook Inlet venture into perilously shallow areas. "They move in extremely dangerous areas and in some of the biggest tides in the world," says Craig Matkin, a marine mammal biologist for the North Gulf Oceanic Society. "Sometimes they strand and have to get off the sand." The whales can withstand being beached for as long as 12 hours, waiting for the next tide to come in.

But for all the amazing ways that the Cook Inlet belugas cope with their stark environment, there's one imminent threat for which they have no adaptation: Gov. Sarah Palin.

Palin's old-school approach to wildlife management is legendary. Despite her incongruous penchant for sporting a polar bear pin, the governor's antipathy for federal protections for the polar bear has led her administration to sue the federal government over the bear's threatened status. Palin's gruesome policy of supporting aerial hunting of wolves is so infamous that Defenders of Wildlife has launched an entire "Eye on Palin" campaign, starring actress Ashley Judd. The site has prompted the governor to denounce the venerable environmental organization as an "extreme fringe group." Now, new federal protections to protect the belugas of Cook Inlet are Palin's latest target.

On Jan. 14, 2009, the Alaska governor announced that the state had filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue the federal government for protecting the whales, arguing that Alaska is already doing enough for the whales in the Inlet. Palin's chief of staff published an Op-Ed in the Anchorage Daily News on Jan. 28 titled "Protection Requirements for Cook Inlet Belugas Are Silly."

While there are five stocks of beluga whales in waters near Alaska, the ones in Cook Inlet are isolated and genetically distinct from their cousins. That population has declined dramatically since the 1980s, from over 1,000 to about 375 now. More than 300 whales perished in one four-year stretch (1994 to 1998) alone, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Marine mammal biologists and conservationists were hopeful that sharply limiting subsistence hunting of the whales by native Alaskans would see the whales bounce back. But despite only five whales being killed by hunting since 1999, when new regulations went into effect, the whales have not rebounded.

Even the Bush administration took note of the Cook Inlet belugas' decline, after being pressured by environmental groups. In October 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced the listing of the Cook Inlet population of beluga whales as a full-fledged endangered species. Yes, the Bush administration, infamous for its disdain for science when it came to protecting endangered critters, saw fit to offer protections to the belugas living in Cook Inlet. But not the Palin administration.

"It's hard to imagine that anyone could be more anti-environmental than Bush, but Palin is Exhibit A," says Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "Here we had the most anti-environmental administration in U.S. history, and Palin still feels compelled to sue over one of the few environmentally positive things to come out of that administration."

If the Alaska governor does indeed represent the future of the Republican Party, her cavalier approach to preserving endangered species represents a break from the GOP's past. After all, the Endangered Species Act, passed by a Democratic Congress, was signed into law by President Richard Nixon. "Sarah Palin is a very gifted politician, she obviously has a future and she's going places," says Jim DiPeso, spokesman for Republicans for Environmental Protection. "And she is certainly within her rights to file litigation. But in this case she's on the wrong side of history and the American conservation movement, and of what's prudent and right."

What's hampering the Cook Inlet belugas' comeback? Marine mammal biologists don't know yet, says Karla Dutton, Alaska director for Defenders of Wildlife. Hypotheses range from climate change altering the habits of the fish that the whales prey on, to city noise pollution impacting the belugas' hunting and travel. There's a theory that more killer whales could be venturing into Cook Inlet and preying on them. Or perhaps a parasite or disease is hindering their return. Or maybe there are simply so few females of reproductive maturity now that it's hard for the whales to stage a comeback.

But the health of the species could have implications for the rest of the ecosystem they inhabit. As year-round residents, the belugas represent the top of the food chain in Cook Inlet and their disappearance could have a cascade effect. And whatever's harming the whales could have implications for other species in Cook Inlet. One thing the scientists do know for sure is that the belugas' new endangered species status will encourage more study of them. Plus, an endangered designation means that the federal government will designate "critical habitat" for the belugas this year within Cook Inlet, offering new protections for spots frequented by the whales.

That's what's got the Palin administration's goat. "The fear is that the Endangered Species Act listing of the beluga will lead to regulation of essentially unfettered industrial activity in Cook Inlet," explains Cummings. Today in Cook Inlet, the oil industry is still allowed to dump its toxic waste into areas with fisheries. That seemingly outrageous practice is grandfathered into law because the industry's activities predated the Clean Water Act of 1972. "Cook Inlet remains in this kind of 1950s regulatory backwater," says Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inlet Keeper, a nonprofit advocacy group working to protect the watershed.

The beluga also happens to inhabit the part of Alaska with the largest human population, making it essentially an urban whale. Listing the beluga as an endangered species could affect plans to expand the port of Anchorage and to build the Knik Arm Bridge, now known by critics as "the other bridge to nowhere." The critical habitat designation could also curtail oil and natural gas exploration and drilling in Cook Inlet, as well as coal mining in the watershed.

But environmentalists argue that protecting the whales does not have to halt such industrial projects altogether, just make them more whale-friendly. "There is the handful of interests that have been getting the free pass, and will be subject to new regulation and don't want it: oil, bridge construction, sewage treatment and port expansion," says Cummings. "Those are activities that will get more regulation. That doesn't mean that they won't occur, it just means that they'll have to demonstrate how they're compatible with the protection of the beluga."

Still, Palin's objection to the listing of the whale goes beyond hampering her desire to "drill, baby, drill." "It's the classic Western mentality toward the federal government: Give us all your money, and then leave us alone, and don't regulate us," says Cummings. "Alaska is completely dependent on federal pork, but completely opposed to any form of federal regulation."

In her Jan. 22 "state of the state" address, Palin herself said as much, bragging about suing the federal government for "misusing the Endangered Species Act … to impose environmental policies that should be debated and approved legislatively, not by court order or bureaucratic decree." She promised: "We'll challenge abuse of federal law when it's used to lock up Alaska."

"Palin is pandering to a national base because [attacking] the Endangered Species Act has grown into a very effective organizing tool for the private-property rights advocates, who want to see all regulation disappear," says Shavelson. "I think this is a frivolous lawsuit, and a waste of taxpayer money."

The good news for the belugas of Cook Inlet is that advocates are confident the National Marine Fisheries Service under the Obama administration will vigorously defend the beluga listing from Palin's lawsuit. Yet having had the opportunity to once again shake a legal stick at federal regulation may be victory enough for Palin.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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