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Irrigators Want 7 Fish Runs Off Endangered List

by Mike Lee, Herald staff writer
Tri-City Herald, September 29, 2001

Columbia Basin irrigators pushed for an unprecedented repeal of federal salmon regulations in the Northwest on Friday, asking the government to remove seven salmon and steelhead runs from the Endangered Species Act list.

Bolstered by a recent federal court ruling in Oregon, irrigators are challenging the validity of ESA protection for stocks that ply the Columbia and Snake rivers. Also, they are forcing answers to big questions about the region's patched-together hatchery policy.

The landmark move could drastically change the nature of salmon recovery, perhaps loosening restrictions on water and land use. If successful, "delisting" species also likely would remove the lower Snake River dams from consideration for breaching.

"You take a big sledgehammer away that is zeroed in on the Northwest and you then manage the resources for everyone's good," said Tom Mackay, president of the Columbia-Snake River Irrigator's Association.

The formal petition asks the National Marine Fisheries Service to repeal salmon protections made without counting large numbers of hatchery fish.

Runs in question are steelhead, spring-summer chinook, sockeye and fall chinook on the Snake River, along with Mid-Columbia steelhead, Upper Columbia steelhead and Upper Columbia spring chinook.

The petition also signaled a willingness by irrigators to challenge NMFS in court if the agency doesn't voluntarily drop species protections. And it asks NMFS to bow out of Northwest salmon management altogether and leave that to the states and tribes.

"With the largest salmon runs observed this year since dam counts began in 1938, the time is ripe for reconsidering application of the Endangered Species Act to Pacific salmon stocks," said the petition by James Buchal, a Portland lawyer who is well-known in salmon circles. "The federal government has far more pressing business than micromanagement of salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest."

Irrigators are leaning on a decision by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan earlier this month that NMFS must account for hatchery and wild fish when making decisions about protecting salmon and steelhead.

NMFS has interpreted its job as recovery of "natural populations" of fish.

But when hatchery fish are included in species assessment, it likely will be much more difficult to justify putting them on the endangered species list. The irrigators' petition says NMFS' own analysis reportedly shows that when the agency counts hatchery fish there is "no appreciable risk of extinction for nearly all Pacific Northwest salmon (populations)."

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said Friday that Hogan's ruling and the ensuing challenges could help bring salmon recovery from the brink of the absurd.

"We have had hatcheries in the Columbia River for about 100 years, and nobody can say for certain that those fish they are calling wild fish are in fact not the progeny of hatchery fish sometime in the last 100 years," he said.

The question for NMFS -- and eventually the courts -- is how similar the Oregon coastal coho case is to other salmon stocks around the region.

An attorney for the Northwest Power Planning Council presented an overview of developing legal issues this week, saying NMFS likely will have to "rethink its overall ... policy" on how it evaluates salmon species.

Significantly, said council attorney John Shurts, Hogan did not rule that coastal coho don't deserve protection, just that NMFS went about it the wrong way. Also, Shurts noted that Hogan did not rule on whether there are important distinctions between hatchery and wild fish.

Those issues still must be sorted out by the region, which is buzzing with speculation about how the suit and the petition will change the multimillion salmon recovery industry.

"We don't want to see any less protection for any fish, hatchery or wild," said Chuck Hudson, spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "But what we have been pushing for is more flexibility to use (hatchery) fish ... for recovery."

At Idaho Rivers United, native fish director Bert Bowler said he fears some groups in the region want to make up for habitat destruction by simply pumping out more hatchery fish.

"We're looking for long-term sustainability," he said. "It's not that we can't use hatchery fish to help here and there, but long-term sustainability is going to be fish that complete the life cycle on their own."

Mike Lee
Irrigators Want 7 Fish Runs Off Endangered List
Tri-City Herald, September 29, 2001

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