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Action Agencies Issue BIOP 'Progress Report'

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - May 17, 2002

The federal action agencies say they are "right on track" in implementing measures called for in a December 2000 federal fish recovery plan for the Columbia Basin.

Critics call that assertion a "fairy tale."

The jury -- the agency that crafted the plan and set deadlines for achieving its fish survival improvement targets -- is "still out." The National Marine Fisheries Service has 45 days to judge the 2001 biological opinion implementation "progress report" released this week. NMFS will release a "findings letter" that judges what has been done (i.e. the 2001 actions detailed in the report and this year's action plan), and how those measures fit into the five-year strategy outlined and released late last year. The intent is to update the one- and five-year plans each year.

The initial progress report and findings letter are steps toward a more a more ominous judgment day in 2003. That's when comes the first of three "check-ins" is scheduled. The expected the life of the recovery plan is 10 years with check-ins also slated in 2005 and 2008. The 2003 check-in will involve the assessment of whether agencies have taken steps toward achieving the goals for salmon and steelhead populations.

A "failure" report from NMFS could prompt corrective actions that the require additional authorities for the federal agencies in order to implement necessary actions. An example of an action that would require such additional authority is the beaching of Snake River dams.

Failure of the plan could ultimately -- if additional authorities were deemed unattainable -- force the agencies to seek from the "God Squad" an exemption under the Endangered Species Act for the hydrosystem operations

The 2000 BiOp, as previous BiOps have, is focused in large part on measures that can be taken within the Federal Columbia River Power System to improve the survival of 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead listed under the Endangered Species Act. The BiOp had said proposed operations by the action agencies threatened the existence of eight of the 12 listed fish populations. The BiOp and a companion "All H" strategy developed by a caucus of nine federal agencies aims to supplement hydrosystem survival gains with improvements in fish habitat and in harvest and hatchery regimes.

So far so good, according to the action agencies.

Efforts to recover Columbia River Basin fish are on track and expected to meet the National Marine Fisheries Service's biological opinion objectives for 2003, say officials with the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau and Corps operate the system's hydro projects; BPA markets the power produced.

With Wednesday's release of the progress report, the three federal agencies provided a snapshot of actions taken over the past year to help recover threatened and endangered fish.

"Under less than optimal conditions, a lot was accomplished in 2001," said BPA Administrator Steve Wright. "Substantial progress was made toward achieving structural improvements to benefit endangered fish. Despite the second worst water year in recorded history, adult survival through the dams was the best ever and juvenile survival, with the exception of some steelhead stocks, was within the range recommended by scientists as necessary to avoid extinction."

Hydropower actions include improving juvenile and adult passage at mainstem dams, managing the river to protect salmon nests and young migrating fish, and providing improved water quality, according to a press release from the agencies. During 2001, due to low water and poor river migration conditions, 90 percent of Snake River fish and about 50 percent of Columbia River fish were transported in barges.

Habitat actions in the Columbia River Basin include securing increases in water quantity during critical migration periods, improving fish passage by diverting fish away from irrigation systems and acquiring and protecting habitat at risk of being degraded.

Hatchery actions include work on Hatchery and Genetic Management Plans intended to improve the operations and management of hatcheries to reduce potential harm to endangered fish stocks.

Harvest actions include programs to encourage use of more "tangle-tooth" and "floating trap" nets to aid release of wild fish incidentally caught with hatchery fish.

"We are proud of the progress made in this first year and are confident that 2002 will build on these initial efforts," said Ken Pedde, the Bureau's deputy regional director.

There were a few projects that the agencies delayed in 2001. Among these were development of a removable weir at John Day Dam, implementation of operational alternatives at Libby and completion of a comprehensive strategy for marking hatchery fish to allow regional coordination. The agencies expect to be able to move ahead with these improvements in 2002.

Another promising sign from last year, officials said, was the near-record numbers of adult fish returns in 2001, with large runs again expected for this year.

"We haven't seen such large numbers of returning Snake River fish since 1938 when Bonneville Dam was built," said Brig. Gen. David Fastabend, Northwestern Division Engineer, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "There are a number of contributing factors - great ocean conditions and good freshwater conditions in the early lifecycle for these fish, improved passage for young fish and changes in river operations."

Salmon advocates rejected the agencies report, saying it "veiled the realities of last year's deadly juvenile salmon migration and misrepresents the failures in funding and implementing the federal plan."

"If this train is on track, then I want off," said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for Save Our Wild Salmon. "Because if we're on track, we're heading for a train wreck and it's called extinction."

Earlier this year the SOS coalition released its own "Report Card" for federal salmon protection agencies that says less 25 percent of the actions the federal government said were necessary to save salmon were actually completed. Using the federal agencies action plan as a measuring stick, salmon advocates gave the federal government an "F" for implementation and funding.

"How you can complete less than a quarter of the measures you say are needed to recover listed salmon and steelhead in the Basin and then say you're on track is a mystery to me," said Jeff Curtis, Western conservation director for Trout Unlimited. "You can't 'spin' your way to salmon recovery."

Tribal entities are among those in the region that have supported dam breaching as a necessary first tool in salmon recovery. Some have also become party to a legal challenge to the BiOp that was mounted last year by the National Wildlife Federation and other fishing and conservation groups.

"The salmon plan is in litigation for good reason," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. "It is a collection of vague, underfunded actions with goals not clearly defined."

"To say the plan is on target is disingenuous," he added.

An SOS news release said that the action agencies' announcement "makes note of a large number of adult salmon returning from the ocean last year to illustrate how well the federal plan is working. However, they fail to mention that last year was also the most deadly juvenile migration to the ocean since salmon were listed."

Hudson said linking the 2001 adult salmon and steelhead return to actions taken that year as a part of the recovery plan is also disingenuous. "That's a stretch. Before they issue a progress report they better refer back to the calendar and double check which fish they are taking credit for," Hudson said of the adult fish, which had spent a year or more in the Pacific Ocean before their return.

"If federal agencies believe they are on track, they are either suffering severe delusions or hired Arthur Anderson to do the analysis," said Bill Arthur, Northwest regional director of the Sierra Club. "The Bush Administration and federal agencies are failing the salmon and people of the Northwest. 'Pray for rain' is not a salmon recovery plan."

"This region must stop hiding its head in the sand," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "Salmon are in trouble; salmon communities are in trouble; and if we continue to pretend that everything is okay, this whole region will be in trouble. We need leadership not fairy tales."

Related Sites:
Federal Caucus

Barry Espenson
Action Agencies Issue BIOP 'Progress Report'
Columbia Basin Bulletin, May 17, 2002

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