Federal agencies moving too slowly for salmon

By Amy Baird of Portland, Oregon. Amy is the communications director for the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition, which works to restore self-sustaining and abundant wild salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific salmon states.

A year ago, US District Judge James Redden ruled the federal plan to restore endangered Columbia-Snake salmon illegal. At the time, he cited the existing federal policy as "arbitrary and capricious," making it the 4th federal plan, and 3rd in a row, that has failed to stand up to the Endangered Species Act. In his August 2011 ruling, Judge Redden (who has since retired from the case) put forth several directives, including: a stronger scientific basis for the plan's weak jeopardy standard, additional attention to spill and flow at the federal dams, and an analysis of lower Snake River dam removal. A full year later, we've seen nothing from the federal agencies involved to indicate they are working on these directives or making progress.

The last year hasn't been all bad news, but the good news we did have occurred in spite of the federal agencies, not because of them. The Elwha and Condit dam removals took place, and, far earlier than scientists expected, salmon and steelhead are already present in the newly accessible habitat in the Elwha and White Salmon Rivers. And although this year’s salmon returns to the Columbia-Snake are mostly down from recent years, a huge return of non-endangered sockeye salmon to the Okanogan River occurred. Scientists cite two main factors in human control – managers’ focus on wild salmon habitats rather than hatcheries, and court-ordered spill at Columbia-Snake dams.

The outstanding scientific event of the last year was release of a federal-state-Tribal study (pdf) documenting how well court-ordered spill is working to restore salmon, and suggesting that increased spill, above the court-ordered level, could be enough to reach recovery goals for endangered salmon in the Columbia portion of the watershed. Of course spill is still not a guaranteed part of the federal plan to restore salmon, and in fact they have resisted all attempts to incorporate adequate spill into the plan thus far (or Biological Opinion, as it is known).

Time is running out. The federal agencies only have until December 2013 to submit a new salmon plan in court.

Too much is at stake. So many people and interests are impacted by salmon in the Northwest, including: commercial and recreational fishers, power producers and consumers, barge workers, river communities, Tribes. And with ten billion in tax payer dollars already spent on implementing plans that have been ruled illegal, you can't help but wonder if it might be time to try a different approach and bring in stakeholders to achieve lawful, science-based and broadly supported solutions for wild, endangered salmon.

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