Wildness is fading


By Nancy Lord

Its spring in Alaska, which means, in my coastal town, that sandpipers flock over the mudflats while mallards dabble beside long-tailed ducks, mergansers, eiders and black brants. The bugling of sandhill cranes wakes me in the morning, and one recent day I watched more than 100 harbor seals splashing through schools of herring in Mud Bay.

Spring also used to be heralded by small numbers of beluga whales, shining white as they rolled into the bay to join the feast, then rolled out again to feed on Cook Inlets salmon runs. When I used to fish commercially in the inlet, belugas sometimes surrounded me in such numbers that their rising backs looked like a sea of whitecaps.

Its been years since Ive seen a beluga.

Today, Cook Inlets isolated and genetically distinct population of beluga whales, which was surely more than 1,000 in the 1980s -- no one was counting then -- is thought to number fewer than 300. Moreover, the whales no longer travel widely through the inlet but have confined themselves to a shrunken range in the most human populated and industrialized part of Cook Inlet, the area around Anchorage.

On May 4, these Cook Inlet belugas were listed on the 2006 Red List of Threatened Species released by the World Conservation Union as critically endangered. These same whales are not, however, listed as endangered by either our federal or state government, and they are not afforded the protections of a recovery plan or critical habitat areas.

Americans like to think of Alaska as a place of vast wild lands and bountiful wildlife. Compared to the rest of the country, Alaska might still be something like that.

Alaskans would like Americans to believe that were good, responsible stewards of our land and resources. In fact, our Legislature just hired an Oregon public relations firm to convince you of that, so that youll think its a good idea to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Im here to tell you that Alaska is, as it has been ever since the first Russians laid claim to it, a colony of business and corporate interests and not-so-benign neglect by distant rulers.

Which brings me back to the beleaguered belugas. The reason the Cook Inlet belugas are now critically endangered is because the agency in charge of managing them has failed to do that. And one reason it has failed is because business and corporate interests would find it inconvenient to have to do anything different than what they have always done in and around Cook Inlet, and the politicians those interests influence have acted to make sure they dont get inconvenienced.

To be sure, the road to near-extinction for Cook Inlet belugas was not paved by the oil companies and others doing business. The National Marine Fisheries Service, in charge of managing whales, first failed to regulate what was an unsustainable level of subsistence hunting by Alaska Natives.

Then the agency compounded a critical situation by failing to protect the whales under the Endangered Species Act, failing to protect habitat and failing to complete a conservation plan. The state of Alaska, likewise, failed to apply its own protective laws. This cascade of failures came not at the level of scientists who know what needs to be done but at upper levels, where matters are decided by whats good for business and who contributes to political campaigns.

Seven years after beluga hunting was shut down, the belugas are not only showing no sign of recovery, they appear to still be declining in numbers.

Factors other than hunting are involved, but those factors have not been identified. As a small population, the whales are now vulnerable to any number of anthropogenic (people-caused) activities, to increased predation by killer whales, to strandings, to environmental change including global warming, to disease and to genetic factors.

Youve heard of Alaskas bridges to nowhere. One of them -- the Knik Arm Bridge -- will cross at the heart of the very small range of the remaining Cook Inlet belugas, disrupting the physical environment they depend upon.

To me, the sight of belugas used to be a welcome harbinger of spring. Now I fear theyre a harbinger of another kind -- of Alaskas future and what well continue to lose.

Special to the Los Angeles Times

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