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Crapo Panelists Critique Federal Recovery Plan

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 17, 2000

Panels made up of regional scientists, researchers and representatives of economic interests were asked last week to offer their views on the federal salmon recovery planning "process, science basis and prospects for success."

The setting was a Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water hearing in Boise chaired by Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo.

It followed two days of subcommittee testimony in September in Washington, D.C., where "serious concerns were raised about the lack of collaboration by the federal agencies with state, tribal and economic interests as the draft biological opinion was being developed. There are also serious reservations about the science used by these federal agencies," Crapo said in a pre-hearing press release.

"The resolution of this issue is so difficult and controversial that it could ultimately be decided by Congress," Crapo said. "I believe it is important to build a record that will enable Congress to make an informed decision that will recover the fish and protect the economy of the Pacific Northwest."

Crapo concluded the hearing by saying he would ask the National Marine Fisheries Service to delay publication of its final Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion and a draft Federal Caucus Basinwide Salmon Recovery Strategy so that collaboration can take place. NMFS has said that final documents would be released on Dec. 15.

In Boise Crapo heard mixed reviews from salmon scientists, a state official and a broad array of business interests.

Russell Thurow, a fisheries research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station, called the federal strategy seriously flawed. He prefaced his remarks by saying the opinions expressed were his and not a statement of the Forest Service's position.

Thurow's comments focused on what he called "the scientifically indefensible conclusion that Snake River anadromous fish stocks can be recovered through restoration of freshwater and rearing habitat." He said that, for Snake River stocks, the number of young produced per spawner has "remained fairly consistent or slightly increased since the 1960s" while overall returns have steadily declined coincident with hydrosystem development during that period.

In high quality habitat such as that on the Middle Fork Salmon River "there is virtually no opportunity to substantially improve egg-to-smolt survival," Thurow said.

"The problem lies not in the quality of spawning areas but in the lack of sufficient numbers of adults successfully returning so spawn" Thurow said of smolt-to-adult return rates for Snake River stocks that have declined from more than 4 percent in 1968 to less than .2 percent in 1992. "Consequently, freshwater habitat restoration will not recover Snake River stocks."

While saying that high quality habitat, and the restoration of degraded habitat, is extremely important, he urged planners to refocus efforts to restore survival in the smolt-to-adult stage if they expect to meet Snake River recovery goals.

Karl Dreher, director of the Idaho department of Water Resources, faulted the draft BiOp in two regards -- "the inadequacy of the science relied on by NMFS in continuing to call for flow augmentation in the mainstem of the Snake River and the flawed analysis conducted by NMFS in assessing the effects of the Bureau for Reclamation projects in the Upper Snake River Basin."

Dreher said there was "limited collaboration" with the federal agencies to discuss his or other regional and local concerns.

"Had adequate collaboration occurred, the insufficiencies in the science I have described could have been addressed before the draft BiOp was finalized," Dreher said. "While NMFS may address these flaws to some extent in the ensuing final Biological Opinion, the lack of adequate collaboration has undoubtedly increased the likelihood and scope of subsequent litigation -- litigation which will only serve to slow implementation and diminish the effectiveness of meaningful and feasible recovery actions."

James Anderson of the University of Washington also said the opportunities for give-and-take in the federal process were limited.

"From my observations there is no mechanisms to input substantive issues to the BiOp process," Anderson said.

The associate professor at the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences also said that the recovery actions outlined in the BiOp cannot be evaluated, for success or failure in the timeframe allotted. The draft BiOp says that actions would be evaluated, and modified if salmon population trends are not improving, after five years. It also said that if the population trends continue downward after eight years, the agencies would seek authority to breach dams if science supports that recommendation.

"This is not sufficient time to evaluate actions," Anderson said. A single salmon's life cycle can span six years. And it could take 10 to 20 years to sort out the effects of cyclical climatic conditions from the effects produced by any recovery plan actions. Anderson also questioned whether the BiOp would accurately gauge the potential effectiveness of dam breaching during its proposed timeframe.

Anderson and independent consultant Charles Paulsen questioned the ability to even judge the effectiveness of the federal plan. That would require "monitoring everything that swims or creeps or crawls," said Paulson. "We may run out of people, run out of money, run out of time."

Mark Benson of Potlatch Corporation said the BiOp has both strengths and flaws.

"Early on attention was too often focused exclusively on the dams. We think that was wrong, and we are encouraged that both the scientific and the policy focus has expanded to include the entire life cycle of the fish and all of the H's that impact their life cycle," Benson said. "The fundamental premise underlying the draft BiOp and recovery strategy paper is that we set aside dam breaching and aggressively pursue a range of other measures to protect and recovery listed fish species."

"As is often the case, the devil is in the details. We have concerns about the specifics and timeframes of the performance measures," Benson said.

"As the documents relate to off-site habitat management we have a strong concern with others in our industry about the growing federal intrusion into resource management roles that historically have been, and should be, the province of state sovereignty," Benson added. Potlatch is a forest products company with pulp, paper, tissue and lumber operations in Lewiston, Idaho, and 670,000 acres of forestland holdings in north central Idaho.

Thayne Barrie, president of Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited, said the BiOp "wants to continue to punish the victims," such as sport, tribal and commercial fishers who have watched their opportunities dwindle as fish populations plummeted following construction of four lower Snake River dams.

Logging, mining and ranching industries have also suffered as moves were made to protect habitat for the remaining wild fish populations. "All because the dams kill so many fish that no other mortality can occur."

"It (the BiOp) is laden with habitat, harvest and hatchery measures -- more of the same stuff that has been done in the basin for the last 20 years, said Barrie, owner of Sunset Sports Center stories in Boise and Pocatello. He insisted that dam breaching be considered in recovery planning.

"ISSU has no agenda to breach dams. ISSU has an agenda to save salmon even if it means breaching the four Lower Snake River dams," Barrie said. "We are willing to support any plan that can pass state, tribal and legal muster to restore or salmon and steelhead resources. We have yet to see one that does not involve breaching the four Lower Snake dams, nor do we believe we ever will."

Scott Corwin of the Pacific Northwest Generating Cooperative said, "the best new science continues to deny the value of breaching as a salmon recovery tool. We object to the inclusion in the draft BiOp of a vague set of triggers towards breaching dams, including requests for preliminary design work."

Craig Smith of the Northwest Food Processors Association called the BiOp a halting step in the right direction.

"It is a shift away from dam breaching, toward a performance based plan," Smith said. We believe this shift is long overdue, even though the BiOp has many problems and still contains many of the elements of past, failed efforts."

by Barry Espenson
Crapo Panelists Critique Federal Recovery Plan
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 1, 2000

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