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Scientists Say NMFS’ BiOp Lacks Collaboration

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 15, 2000

State and tribal fisheries scientists told Congress on Thursday that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to collaborate with them on its draft biological opinion for endangered Columbia Basin salmon.

Testifying on the last of three days of Senate hearings on the Clinton administration's salmon plan, four officials said collaboration ended in late 1998 and early 1999 when NMFS abandoned the PATH process.

Instead of continuing to work with other scientists on the Plan for Analyzing and Testing Hypotheses, NMFS developed its own model, the Cumulative Risk Initiative (CRI), and used it as the analytical basis for the draft BiOp.

Both PATH and CRI attempt to predict how various management alternatives would affect salmon recovery, but NMFS has acknowledged that CRI provides a "less detailed" examination, according to Ed Bowles, anadromous fish manager, Idaho Fish and Game Department.

"There has been very little scientific collaboration," Bowles said. "(Rather) it's a situation where you have information put out on the Web that we are to comment on." The lack of peer review runs the risk of "institutional bias," he said.

Echoing the charge were Nick Bouwes, biometrician, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; Keith Kutchins, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes biologist; and Earl Weber, fisheries scientist, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. They said it was important for their agencies to be involved throughout the process so that policy-makers can have sound scientific findings and analysis.

State and tribal scientists were left out of the CRI's development and analysis and were "outside with our noses pressed against the window," Kutchins said. "NMFS definition of collaboration appears to be notification."

In contrast to the more simplistic CRI model, PATH "held rigorous, formal scientific debates that included a weight-of-evidence approach for evaluating scientific evidence," Weber said. CRITFC is seeking funding to revive the model and use it to test the BiOp and salmon strategy, which aim to restore salmon without breaching four lower Snake River dams.

Bouwes said the states and tribes have not been "full and equal partners" in the development of the CRI, and that NMFS has made only a couple of "minor fixes" in the model in response to Oregon's critique. In addition, in its draft BiOp, NMFS fed optimistic assumptions into CRI about salmon survival instead of taking a conservative risk-averse approach, Bouwes said.

In its draft BiOp, NMFS largely ignored the PATH findings and relied on the CRI for Snake River endangered salmon and steelhead, Bowles said.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, chairman of the Wildlife, Fisheries and Water Subcommittee who held two days of hearings, said the federal government's draft BiOp and "All-H" salmon strategy, which were released in July, were flawed because they were developed without involving Northwest states, tribes and other interests.

"It's evident to me there was no real collaboration going on," Crapo said.

Federal Judge Malcolm Marsh in 1995 rejected a previous BiOp partly for that reason and directed NMFS to work with state and tribal fisheries agencies on the new BiOp. (That suit against NMFS was brought by the Idaho Fish and Game Department, the state of Oregon and four fishing treaty tribes.)

In response, NMFS organized and funded PATH but did not entirely accept its results. Crapo said he and other Northwest members of Congress were urging officials of NMFS and other federal agencies to make good on their promise to engage in true collaboration on a final version, which is due by the end of the year. But he said three-and-a-half months does not leave much time for that to happen.

NMFS regional director Will Stelle told Crapo at Wednesday's hearing that his agency was willing to "seriously and meaningfully" engage in collaboration and correct flaws in the BiOp. But Stelle also strongly defended NMFS scientific work and findings.

But Bowles said Idaho Fish and Game was willing to work with NMFS to improve the BiOp and make it "sound and progressive." That will require state, tribal and federal scientists getting back together and working out their differences, Bowles said, adding that he believed there is enough time to do that.

Kutchins noted, however, that the official comment period on the BiOp ends this month.

Weber said he would like to see the scientists who developed the PATH model "called back into play" and said they were available. Weber said the draft BiOp has not sufficiently defined the management actions that will be taken, making it difficult to model.

Bouwes said NMFS has favored the most optimistic assumptions about the impacts of proposed actions on salmon recovery instead of taking a risk averse approach. "We should err on the side of the fish," he said.

If those assumptions are changed, that would greatly change the conclusions reached using the CRI, Bouwes said.

Scientists Say NMFS’ BiOp Lacks Collaboration
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 15, 2000

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