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Crapo Wants Salmon Decision Postponed

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, November 21, 2000

Senator asks feds to find consensus with states, tribes

(Darin Oswald) Sen. Mike Crapo directs a question Monday to a panel representiing commerical interests regarding the issue of breaching four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River.  Crapo held the final of three field hearings on Monday in Boise. U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo urged federal authorities Monday to delay a final decision on salmon protection during a field hearing in Boise.

Crapo, R-Idaho, said the National Marine Fisheries Service should push back the final approval of its plan to save endangered salmon without breaching four Snake River dams. During the 2- to 6-month delay, Crapo wants the agency to seek consensus with the four Northwest states and tribes.

"I am offended that the federal agencies are not doing everything possible to organize people and their knowledge in a systematic effort to get this right," Crapo said.

Crapo is chairman of the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Endangered Species Act. The hearing was the third in a series of hearings on the National Marine Fisheries Service's biological opinion of the effects of federal dams on salmon. The biological opinion is the agency's official decision on how to minimize the effects of dams on salmon. Since it decided the federal dams jeopardize the existence of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin, it must list alternatives to offset the dams' effects.

Salmon are a living icon of the wild character of the Pacific Northwest. The fish still provide jobs and income for fishing businesses and spiritual sustenance for American Indians. The four dams produce enough electricity to power a city the size of Seattle and allow barge shipping inland to Lewiston.

In July, federal officials announced they would not press for breaching the four dams to save Snake River salmon runs. Instead they will concentrate efforts on improving spawning habitat, reducing predation by fish-eating birds and other measures.

These measures will add restrictions on farming, ranching, suburban development and fishing. So far, the region has spent more than $3 billion to protect dams and salmon.

The final decision on the biological opinion is scheduled for Dec. 15, a year after the deadline set by U.S. District Court Judge Malcolm Marsh in 1995. The federal plan calls for revisiting the decision on breaching dams in five and eight years if salmon populations don't improve markedly.

"We could theoretically delay indefinitely as the science keeps changing, but what the federal caucus came out with was a plan that takes the changing science into account," said Janet Sears, a fisheries service spokeswoman.

The delay would push the decision into the next administration, said Mitch Sanchotena, executive director of Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited. Democrat Al Gore has supported the current approach, but Republican George Bush has repeatedly vowed to keep the dams in place.

"Politics and science will never come together on this," Sanchotena said. "We've already delayed this a year; we need to get it out."

Several panels of scientists gave conflicting testimony Monday on how to save the fish.

They agreed that the key unresolved issue is how many fish die of stress caused by their migration through hydroelectric dams after they reach the mouth of the Columbia River.

If the number of stressed fish that die after their trip is high, as state, tribal and many federal scientists believe, then breaching dams may be enough to save the Snake River's salmon. If it is low, as fisheries service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scientists believe, then breaching won't help.

Environmentalists have already said they plan to challenge the biological opinion in court.

But by leaving the states and tribes out of the planning, the federal agencies have weakened their position in court, Crapo said.

"This biological opinion could be an incremental, creeping policy initiative that will not solve the problem with the fish, but instead will steadily erode state and tribal sovereignty," Crapo said.

Rocky Barker
Crapo Wants Salmon Decision Postponed
The Idaho Statesman, November 21, 2000

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