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Is Craig's Loss a Gain for Salmon?

by Jason Kauffman, Staff Writer
Idaho Mountain Express, October 5, 2007

Some see brighter future for Pacific Northwest's anadromous fish

The future for salmon and steelhead that migrate hundreds of miles from the Pacific Ocean back to their natal streams in the Inland Northwest appears much brighter after the surprising fall from power of Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, regional and national salmon advocates say.

These include Idaho's endangered sockeye salmon, whose dramatic plight has caught the attention of Idahoans and other residents of the Pacific Northwest in recent decades. The 900-mile journey Sawtooth Valley sockeye complete from ocean to birthplace is the longest anadromous fish run in the lower United States.

Bill Sedivy, the executive director of Boise-based Idaho Rivers United, said Craig's voice on the salmon issue has been most responsible for setting the tone for Idaho's official policy on the state's anadromous fish populations. From the Chinook salmon of the Snake and Salmon river systems to the sockeye of Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Valley, his unwavering stand has had serious consequences for all anadromous fish in Idaho, Sedivy said.

He said the senator "has lived in a world of denial" regarding the state's threatened salmon and steelhead stocks.

"Last year we had four sockeye return to Redfish Lake. That's not salmon recovery," Sedivy said. "Their chances are far better off with Craig out of the picture."

Craig, who was removed from leadership posts on the Senate Appropriations and Energy committees after a sex scandal, is known as one the most powerful voices in Congress on behalf of the timber and power industries. Environmentalists have fought him for years on issues from endangered salmon to public land grazing.

In recent weeks, Craig said he would remain as Idaho's senior senator at least until a Minnesota judge rules on his effort to withdraw a guilty plea in a men's room sex sting. On Thursday, that judge ruled against Craig, saying his guilty plea should stand.

After the judge's ruling, Sen. Craig announced he has decided to remain in office until the end of his term, despite earlier intentions to resign if he lost his court appeal.

Sedivy said that with Craig out of the limelight, an opportunity exists for politicians like Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to step up and engage in the salmon issue in a more honest and forthright way.

"I'm hopeful we'll see more and more people step up to the plate," he said.

And Sedivy may get his wish. Exercising their slim majority, Senate Democrats have waded into two contentious issues--both related to Snake River salmon.

First, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada asked federal regulators to require passage for salmon and steelhead for relicensing of the Hells Canyon Complex, a series of dams on the Snake River between Oregon and Idaho.

Reid says the passage would allow salmon to return to their historical spawning grounds in northern Nevada, where the shimmering fish used to run thick nearly a century ago.

Meanwhile, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has asked her colleagues to undo Craig's bid to use a federal spending bill to dictate water flow for Snake River fish.

Salmon advocates were thrilled at the actions of the two western Democrats, which they say could go a long way to protect and restore salmon and steelhead in the Snake River Basin, which spans Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming and the northern tip of Nevada.

Under language inserted by Craig this summer, the Interior Department would be directed to implement "without further delay" a controversial Bush administration biological opinion on the Upper Snake River issued in 2005.

U.S. District Judge James Redden ruled last year that the opinion did not do enough to promote recovery of threatened salmon, violating the Endangered Species Act. He ordered federal officials to submit a new salmon recovery plan by the end of October.

Salmon advocates say Craig's language would nullify Redden's ruling and direct officials to rely on a discredited policy that does not provide enough water to allow salmon to thrive and shifts costs for recovery of the threatened fish to the states.

In a Sept. 19 letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chair of the Senate Appropriations Interior subcommittee, Cantwell said Craig's action could undermine the ongoing planning process for salmon and disrupt a judicial order.

"In addition, it could further threaten salmon in the Columbia-Snake River Basin, and the communities that depend on them, by delaying the development of a legally valid" policy, Cantwell wrote.

Dan Whiting, a spokesman for Craig, accused Cantwell and Reid of meddling in Idaho issues.

"Whether they are taking advantage of Senator Craig's current state I don't know," Whiting said.

He added that Craig believes the 2005 opinion rejected by the court is one that will "balance all the interests of water issues in the region, for irrigation, power use and for salmon."

Jason Kauffman
Is Craig's Loss a Gain for Salmon?
Idaho Mountain Express, October 5, 2007

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