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$3.3 Billion Spent to Save NW Salmon

by Dan Hansen, staff writer
The Spokesman Review, August 27, 2002

GAO report finds it impossible to say whether spending has helped endangered species

Eleven federal agencies spent $3.3 billion trying to save salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River and its tributaries over 20 years, the government reported Monday.

The report shows that spending has escalated greatly in recent years. The agencies spent $1.5 billion between 1997 and 2001.

The figures, which go through 2001, don't include millions spent by state and local governments. Nor do they include $303 million spent by federal agencies in the last five years on projects that helped a number of species, including the fish.

It's impossible to determine whether salmon and steelhead actually have been helped by all that money, reported the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. That's because weather, river flows, ocean conditions and other environmental factors that affect salmon are changing constantly and because it can take years to see results from a specific project.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has said it is confident the efforts are helping and recently declared the region "on track" for salmon recovery.

But Monday's report, requested by Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, sparked criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

"The report shows clearly we have to spend this money much more wisely," said Crapo, who has advocated more salmon spending on habitat improvements, and for a greater share of the spending to go to Idaho.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spends more on salmon than any other agency, including nearly $590 million between 1997 and 2001. The money went mostly to helping fish survive dams, or to barge fish around them. Barging is a controversial program that started 34 years ago and remains largely unproven.

Groups that advocate removing four Snake River dams in Washington contend that money is largely wasted.

"Boat rides for fish and `fish-friendly' turbines don't make fiscal or scientific sense," read a press release from one such group, Taxpayers for Common Sense. "These technological fixes will not save salmon from extinction."

The Bonneville Power Administration spent about $404 million on salmon and steelhead in 1997-2001, the report states. The cash-strapped agency, which markets electricity produced by Northwest dams, is considering cuts to its wildlife spending.

Other big spenders during the past five years were the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at about $144 million; NMFS at about $130 million; U.S. Forest Service, $106 million; and the Bureau of Reclamation, $62 million.

Other agencies in the salmon-spending business include the U.S. Geological Survey, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In 1991, Snake River sockeye became the first Northwest population of salmon added to the Endangered Species List. Snake River chinook salmon and steelhead were granted federal protection in 1992 and 1997, respectively.

Then, on March 16, 1999, the National Marine Fisheries Service added four more populations to the list: Lower Columbia chinook; upper Columbia spring chinook; lower Columbia chum salmon; and mid-Columbia steelhead. Many salmon and steelhead throughout the Northwest, from coastal streams and the Puget Sound, also were added to the Endangered Species List that day.

Biologists believe that 10 million to 16 million salmon and steelhead migrated up the Columbia and its tributaries prior to non-Indian settlement. The population began to decline from over-fishing in the 1800s, and continued to fall in the 20th century, hitting a low of 411,000 in 1995.

Last year, in their best showing since the 1930s, nearly 1.9 million salmon and steelhead climbed fish ladders at Bonneville Dam, the lowest dam on the Columbia. Biologists credit that success largely to ocean conditions, which are turning more favorable for Northwest salmon, and good river conditions in the late 1990s, when the young fish were migrating to the ocean from their native streams.

This year's runs also are expected to be large, although not as large as those of 2001. Many biologists are predicting a population crash within the next couple of years.

As dams, farming and other changes have wiped out spawning habitat, the region has come to rely ever more on hatcheries to produce its fish. Biologists note that about 90 percent of last year's salmon and steelhead started life in hatcheries before migrating to the ocean and returning to the Columbia as adults.

NMFS typically does not include hatchery salmon in its fish counts, since the federal goal is to restore self-perpetuating populations. Various lawsuits seek to remove salmon populations from the Endangered Species List due to the relative abundance of hatchery-bred fish.

Related Sites:
NMFS' 2001 Progress Report

Dan Hansen, Staff writer $3.3 Billion Spent to Save NW Salmon
Spokesman Review, August 27, 2002

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