[Federal Register Volume 82, Number 3 (Thursday, January 5, 2017)]
[Pages 1325-1326]
From the Federal Register Online via the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]
[FR Doc No: 2016-31877]



National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

RIN 0648-XU02

Endangered and Threatened Species; Recovery Plan for the Cook 
Inlet Beluga Whale

AGENCY: National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), National Oceanic and 
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Commerce.

ACTION: Notice of availability.


SUMMARY: We, NMFS, announce the adoption and availability of an 
Endangered Species Act Recovery Plan for the Cook Inlet beluga whale 
(Delphinapterus leucas) distinct population segment (DPS) found in Cook 
Inlet, AK.

ADDRESSES: The Recovery Plan is available on the NMFS Alaska Region Web 
site at: https://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/pr/cib-recovery-plan, or upon 
request from the NMFS Alaska Region contact listed below.

telephone: (907) 271-1332, email: [email protected]; or Therese 
Conant, NMFS Office of Protected Resources, telephone: (301) 427-8456, 
email: [email protected].



    The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973, as amended (16 U.S.C. 
1531 et seq.), requires that we develop and implement recovery plans 
for listed species under our jurisdiction, unless it is determined that 
such a plan would not promote the conservation of a particular species. 
Recovery plans describe the specific actions considered necessary, 
based on the best scientific and commercial data available, to promote 
the conservation and recovery of species listed under the ESA.
    We designated the Cook Inlet beluga whale DPS as endangered under 
the ESA on October 22, 2008 (73 FR 62919). The Cook Inlet beluga whale 
population declined nearly 50 percent from 653 belugas in 1994 to 347 
belugas in 1998 (based on annual comprehensive and systematic aerial 
surveys), coincident with a substantial unregulated subsistence hunt. 
Despite a dramatic reduction in subsistence harvest of Cook Inlet 
beluga whales beginning in 1999, the population did not grow as 
expected, but continued to decline at 1.45 percent per year from 1999 
to 2008, leading to its listing as endangered. The most recent (2014) 
abundance survey estimated a population of 340 Cook Inlet beluga 
whales, with a continued population decline of 0.4 percent per year 
from 2004 to 2014.
    On May 15, 2015, we released the Draft Recovery Plan for the Cook 
Inlet Beluga Whale (Draft Recovery Plan) and published a notice of 
availability in the Federal Register (80 FR 27925) requesting comments. 
Twenty-three comment submissions were received during the 60-day public 
comment period on the plan. Concurrent with the public comment period, 
we also obtained review of the Draft Recovery Plan from five 
independent scientific peer reviewers. We considered all of the peer 
review and public comments received on the Draft Recovery Plan in 
developing the final version of the Recovery Plan.

The Recovery Plan

    Section 4(f)(1) of the ESA requires that recovery plans 
incorporate, to the maximum extent practicable: (1) Objective, 
measurable criteria which, when met, would result in a determination 
that the species is no longer threatened or endangered; (2) site-
specific management actions necessary to achieve the plan's goals; and 
(3) estimates of the time required and costs to implement recovery 
actions. The ultimate goal of the Recovery Plan is to achieve recovery 
of endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales to a level sufficient to warrant 
their removal from the List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife and 
Plants under the ESA (delist). The intermediate goal is to reclassify 
Cook Inlet belugas from endangered to threatened (downlist). The 
Recovery Plan contains: (1) Background on Cook Inlet beluga whale 
natural history and population status; (2) a threats assessment, (3) 
biological and recovery criteria for downlisting and delisting, (4) 
actions necessary to promote the recovery of the species, (5) an 
implementation schedule, and (6) estimates of time and cost to 
    Ten potential threat types are identified and assessed in the 
Recovery Plan, based on current knowledge of threat factors. The 
threats assessment ranks each of these ten threats as high 
(catastrophic events, cumulative effects of multiple stressors, and 
noise), medium (disease agents, habitat loss or degradation, reduction 
in prey, and unauthorized take), or low (pollution, predation, and 
subsistence hunting) relative concern for Cook Inlet beluga whale 
recovery. Due to an incomplete understanding of the threats facing Cook 
Inlet beluga whales, we are unable to identify with certainty the 
actions that will most immediately encourage recovery. Until we know 
which threats are limiting recovery, the strategy of the Recovery Plan 
is to focus on threats identified as of medium or high relative 
concern. This should focus efforts and resources on actions that are 
more likely to benefit Cook Inlet beluga whale recovery.
    The Recovery Plan incorporates both demographic and threats-based 
criteria which, when met, would indicate that reclassifying the species 
from endangered to threatened, or delisting the species, should be 
considered. The threats-based recovery criteria are designed to 
evaluate the five ESA section 4(a)(1) factors described in the ESA 
listing determination for Cook Inlet beluga whales.
    In summary, Cook Inlet beluga whales may be considered for 
reclassification from endangered to threatened when: (1) The abundance 
estimate for Cook Inlet beluga whales is greater than or equal to 520 
individuals, and there is 95 percent or greater probability that the 
most recent 25-year population abundance trend (where 25 years 
represents one full generation) is positive; and (2) the 10 downlisting 
threats-based criteria are satisfied. Cook Inlet beluga whales may be 
considered for delisting when: (1) The abundance estimate for Cook 
Inlet beluga whales is greater than or equal to 780 individuals, and 
there is 95 percent or greater probability that the most recent 25-year 
population abundance trend (where 25 years represents one full 
generation) is positive; and (2) the 10 downlisting and 9 delisting 
threats-based criteria are satisfied.
    Because a comprehensive approach to Cook Inlet beluga whale 
recovery is likely to have greater success, rather than focusing on any 
one type of action, the recovery actions in the Recovery Plan include 
research, management, monitoring, and education/outreach efforts. When 
determining threats-based recovery actions, we aimed to improve 
understanding of those threats and their

[[Page 1326]]

population-level consequences; and to improve our ability to manage and 
eliminate or mitigate those threats. In addition to addressing the 
threats, we recognize the importance of continuously monitoring the 
Cook Inlet beluga whale population, and have therefore included 
recovery actions specific to population monitoring goals. There are 
also actions targeted at incorporating new information into management 
actions and other elements of the Recovery Plan, and conducting regular 
reassessments of the status of the Cook Inlet beluga population and 
each of the threats to its recovery. As the results of research, 
monitoring, and reassessments become available, we recognize the levels 
of concern for the threats, as well as the priorities, may change. The 
Recovery Plan is meant to be adaptive to allow for such changes.
    The Recovery Plan also includes estimates of the time and costs 
required to implement recovery actions. The total time and cost to 
recovery are very difficult to predict with the current information, 
and the total cost to recovery will be largely dependent upon the 
number of recovery actions requiring implementation. Since that cannot 
be determined prior to implementation of portions of this plan, the 
total cost presented assumes implementation of all recovery actions. As 
recovery progresses and we better understand the relationship between 
discrete threats and population dynamics, it may become apparent that 
there are some threats or recovery actions that need not be addressed 
to achieve recovery. We therefore expect that the total estimated cost 
to achieve recovery presented in the Recovery Plan is high.
    It is expected that recovery may take at least two generations (50 
years). If every identified recovery action were implemented and if 
recovery plan implementation lasted for 50 years, then the estimated 
cost of implementing this entire recovery program would be 
approximately $76.8 million. Any projections of total costs over the 
full recovery period are likely to be imprecise, and the cost estimates 
do not imply that appropriate levels of funding will necessarily be 
available for all Cook Inlet beluga whale recovery tasks. We note that 
recovery plans are guidance and planning documents only, and the 
identification of an action to be implemented by any public or private 
party does not create a legal obligation beyond existing legal 


    NMFS has reviewed the Recovery Plan for compliance with the 
requirements of ESA section 4(f), determined that it incorporates the 
required elements, and is therefore adopting the Recovery Plan for Cook 
Inlet beluga whales.

    Authority:  16 U.S.C. 1531 et seq.

    Dated: December 29, 2016.
Angela Somma,
Chief, Endangered Species Division, Office of Protected Resources, 
National Marine Fisheries Service.
[FR Doc. 2016-31877 Filed 1-4-17; 8:45 am]