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Feds Deal Blow to
Nez Perce Tribe, Salmon Advocates

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, September 10, 2013

Latest bio-op draft avoids calls for dam breaching, increasing spills over dams to restore salmon runs

Aerial view of Lower Granite Dam and its impounded reservoir in which many migrating juvenile salmon die. To the chagrin of salmon advocates, the federal government Monday renewed its focus on easing dam-related mortality on wild salmon and steelhead by improving tributary and estuary habitat.

The latest draft of its biological opinion on the dams does not seek to spill more water at the dams, nor does it call for breaching the four lower Snake River dams - two measures salmon advocates, including the Nez Perce Tribe and a coalition of environmental groups - have backed.

The Nez Perce and the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition have successfully challenged the government's previous four biological opinions, the latest coming in 2011. In that case, federal Judge James Redden at Portland, Ore., ruled the plan illegal because it depended on unspecified habitat improvement projects to make up for fish killed at the dams.

The 751-page draft plan released Monday, commonly called a bio-op, attempts to fix that shortcoming by laying out a course of specific actions that will be taken through 2018 in tributaries and the Columbia River estuary. As with earlier versions, Bruce Suzumoto, head of the National Marine Fisheries Service hydro division, said government scientists believe those improvements - which cost an estimated $30 million annually - will boost survival of wild juvenile salmon enough to offset the number that are killed by the dams.

"We found our original analysis was correct and it was not necessary to look at additional actions including additional spill or dam breaching," he said.

The approach was panned by environmentalists who want more aggressive action to save and eventually recover 13 populations of threatened and endangered fish, including Snake River steelhead, spring chinook, fall chinook and sockeye salmon.

"All four of the government's salmon recovery plans to date have been declared illegal, and there's nothing in this new draft plan to indicate a new direction," said Greg Stahl, salmon program manager for Boise-based Idaho Rivers United. "The two years since the last plan was ruled illegal were an opportunity to build a foundation for collaborative talks. This plan won't help us move in that direction."

Officials at the Nez Perce Tribe were reviewing the draft plan Monday and were not yet prepared to comment.

Aside from breaching the dams, ongoing studies indicate that increasing spill at the dams by as much as 40 percent may produce juvenile salmon and steelhead survival rates that could lead toward recovery. However, instead of increasing spill, the plan includes a measure that could end spill earlier in the year under certain conditions.

According the current court-ordered plan, water is spilled at all eight Snake and Columbia River dams through August to help the young fish reach the ocean. Rock Peters, a senior program manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the new plan could end spill at Snake River dams in August if the number of juvenile fall chinook counted as they migrate downstream falls below 300 per day.

"We would continue to use (fish) bypass facilities at the dam and (barge) transportation," he said.

The agency is accepting comment on the plan through Oct. 7. The plan is available for viewing at

09/09/13 Sovereign Review Draft | FCRPS Supplemental Biological Opinion | NOAA Fisheries Rangewide Status of Snake River Sockeye Salmon ESU Risk Summary
The captive propagation program has likely forestalled extinction of this population and the ESU. This program has increased the total number of anadromous adults and has preserved what genetic diversity remained after the decline. However, the longer this program relies on captive broodstock to maintain the population, the greater the risks of domestication become. Although the program has increased the number of anadromous adults in some years, it has only begun to yield large numbers of returning adults (in part due to larger smolt releases and in part because of out-of-basin effects such as improved ocean conditions).

In recent years, sufficient numbers of returning hatchery adults and their eggs and smolts have been available to make it feasible to use supplementation strategies to increase the abundance of natural spawners. Limnological studies and direct experimental releases are being conducted to learn more about production potential in the three Sawtooth Valley lakes that are candidates for sockeye restoration. Lake habitat rearing potential, juvenile downstream passage survivals, and adult upstream survivals are also being studied. However, substantial increases in survival rates across all life history stages must occur in order to reestablish sustainable natural production (e.g., Hebdon et al. 2004; Keefer et al. 2008). Although the risk status of the Snake River sockeye salmon ESU appears to be on an improving trend, the risk of extinction is still high and the ESU continues to be listed as endangered (Ford 2011).

Judge James A. Redden, August 2, 2011 National Wildlife Federation. v. NMFS


Federal District Court Judge James A. Redden I recognize the inherent uncertainty in making predictions about the effects of future actions. If NOAA Fisheries cannot rely on benefits from habitat improvement simply because they cannot conclusively quantify those benefits, they have no incentive to continue to fund these vital habitat improvements. Moreover, requiring certainty with respect to the effects of a mitigation plan would effectively prohibit NOAA Fisheries from using any novel approach to avoiding jeopardy, including dam removal.

No later than January 1, 2014, NOAA Fisheries shall produce a new biological opinion that reevaluates the efficacy of the RPAs in avoiding jeopardy, identifies reasonably specific mitigation plans for the life of the biological opinion, and considers whether more aggressive action, such as dam removal andor additional flow augmentation and reservoir modifications are necessary to avoid jeopardy. As a practical matter, it may be difficult for Federal Defendants to develop a long-term biological opinion that relies only on mitigation measures that are reasonably certain to occur.

Eric Barker
Feds Deal Blow to Nez Perce Tribe, Salmon Advocates
Lewiston Tribune, September 10, 2013

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