Avoiding Salmon Jeopardy and Recovery
by Rocky Barker
For nearly 20 years salmon management in the Columbia and Snake river basins has been driven by court cases filed under the auspices of the federal Endangered Species Act.
This has forced the federal dam, power and fisheries officials to make their goal avoiding jeopardizing the extinction of salmon. They have been guided by the Endangered Species Act's Section 7, which says the federal government SHALL take no action that jeopardizes the existence of an endangered species.
This is the law's strongest hook -- indeed the most powerful hammer in the United States' environmental law toolbox. Federal managers have the choice of writing a plan that ensures salmon are not jeopardized; or are jeopardized, which can be avoided with reasonable or prudent alternatives; or they can ask the Endangered Species Committee, a little used panel called the God Squad, to determine that a species can go extinct, or that a plan doesn't have to meet the jeopardy standard.
Since 1993, federal officials have written plan after plan after plan to meet the jeopardy standard with little success. But in their efforts, they have put together one of the largest endangered species recovery programs in history in the Columbia and Snake river basins.
It critics can say the so-called four H plan -- covering hydropower, hatcheries, harvest and habitat issues through a region a large as France -- has not met the Endangered Species Act's Section 7. But due in part to fish groups' advocacy, the two rivers are far less lethal to salmon today than they were 20 years ago.
And mostly due to the millions of hatchery salmon stuffed into the system artificially, anglers, commercial fishermen and tribal fishermen are catching fish like they haven't since the early 1970s. Like a network of federal, state and tribal fish farms, the hatcheries have masked the slow pace of returning wild salmon to sustainability.
If the vision of the policymakers who passed the Endangered Species Act in 1973 were to win out, the region would move on to writing a recovery plan for salmon, not just plans to avoid jeopardy. But since the recovery portion of the law has more flexibility for economic interests, there has been little incentive for the sporting groups, commercial fishermen, environmentalists and Nez Perce tribe to leave Section 7 behind.
Since federal officials, the states of Washington, Montana, Idaho and most of the Indian tribes in the region who backed the federal plan can't convince a federal judge they have met the jeopardy standard, they remain stuck working on jeopardy, not recovery.
Trout Unlimited, a national anglers group that had been among the groups suing, pulled out in 2011. It decided to seek another path.
It is focusing its attention on the Snake River. In our watershed, these issues are simpler.
The salmon's spawning habitat is largely protected, and in nearly pristine condition in the nearly 20 million acres of central Idaho wilderness and roadless national forests. Though regional interests and the federal government is spending millions to improve habitat in Salmon river tributaries like the Lemhi and Pahsimeroi, which is benefiting salmon, the future is clearly tied to improving the hydrosystem.
That's why removing the four dams on he Lower Snake River in Washington has been on the table since at least 1997.
Rob Masonis, Trout Unlimited's western conservation vice president in Seattle, said his group is no longer interested in preventing jeopardy. They want to bring together all of the interests involved in the Snake River watershed to write a recovery plan.
"Let's focus on a suite of actions that gets us to recovery, mindful of the community needs and interests," Masonis said.
He says he wants to set a table with the people who have to ship their goods and crops to markets across the Pacific. He wants ranchers and farmers who get water from the Snake to speak for their interests. He wants the power interests.
He wants Lewiston's leaders to offer their vision of the future and to see what place salmon and the river play. And he wants the Nez Perce and other tribes to speak up for the connection they have with the fish since time immemorial.
Oregon and Washington will be there, as well as Montana, because they all have a say in what happens to the Snake's salmon, its dams and its water.
The Nez Perce and Save our Wild Salmon also have sought a new table. The tribe went directly to Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, who has carried the banner for collaboration across Idaho. He has said the fruits of collaboration have not yet ripened for salmon.
But as long as the issue is jeopardy, it appears that it will remain at stalemate and in the hands of a federal judge. That alone should be an incentive for recovery talks.
Steve Hawley here,
Seems like you're committing to an industry-generated interpretation of section 7 of the ESA. That portion of the law requires consultation between federal agencies and the Fish and Wildlife Service or NOAA, to determine whether any federal action will jeopardize the odds for survival and recovery of a species in the wild. The ESA also directs all federal agencies to work to conserve threatened and endangered species, and to use their authority to further the purposes of the act. One of those purposes is clearly defined: the ESA clearly states that the rationale of this law is not to conserve single species like museum pieces, but to restore whole, functioning ecosystems.
The false dichotomy between survival and recovery is one that the BPA and other federal agencies have so far very successfully exploited, to the detriment of the stated purpose of the ESA. The federal agencies are only "stuck" arguing about survival because that's how they've managed to very badly bend the law.
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