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Crapo Challenges NMFS to Open BIOP Process

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - November 17, 2000

Critical of both the science supporting draft federal salmon recovery plans and the process used to produce it, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo has asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to slow its timetable for implementing the strategies.

Crapo's conclusion following three days of public hearings "is that the Federal Caucus drafts are seriously deficient and should not be made final until a serious attempt to improve them is made," Crapo wrote in a Nov. 21 letter to Donna Darm, acting NMFS regional administrator.

"I am asking that you delay publishing your final biological opinion for a short period of time, perhaps two to six months, and use that time to make a good faith effort to collaborate with state, tribal and private scientists and make much needed improvements."

Crapo's request came following a Nov. 20 Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and Water hearing in Boise. Regional scientists and representatives of federal agencies and of economic interests were called to testify during the hearing chaired by Crapo. The Boise hearing followed two days of subcommittee hearing in September in Washington, D.C. (For more on the Boise testimony, see Story No. 2 below.)

The Idaho senator focused testimony on the process used to develop NMFS' draft Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion and a draft Federal Caucus Basinwide Salmon Recovery Strategy. NMFS has said that final documents would be released on Dec. 15.

Crapo said Nov. 20 a closed federal process that forced him to issue Freedom of Information Act requests has produced proposed recovery strategies that have been broadly criticized from within and without the federal bureaucracy.

His letter said NMFS was in a rush to judgment, fearing lawsuits that might stem from a delay in the decision.

"My own view of these concerns is simply how could a few more months to get this right be unreasonable after at least three decades of failure?" Crapo said in his letter to Darm. "Lawsuits are inevitable in this matter. Why don't you want to defend the strongest possible document?"

In his opening statement during the Boise hearing Crapo said that after those three decades of work at a cost of $3 billion to taxpayers and ratepayers "Pacific Northwest salmon and steelhead continue to decline to the point where they may soon become extinct. We must not allow that extinction to happen and must proceed quickly with a consensus plan and action for recovery."

"I am convinced that there exists in the region -- right now -- enough good current information to make major improvements in the draft," Crapo said in his letter to Darm.

"The only barrier to making these improvements is the willingness of the Federal Caucus and particularly the National Marine Fisheries Service to engage its scientific peers in a serious attempt to find areas of agreement and resolve differences."

During the hearing Crapo said that previous testimony presented by then regional administrator Will Stelle, and remarks of NMFS officials quoted by the CBB, hinted that collaboration would come after, not before, release of the final documents.

"Why should anyone have confidence that will happen after the region's experience of little or no collaboration during the last two critical years?" Crapo asked in his letter to Darm.

"Briefings do not constitute collaboration. The right way to use a short 2-6-month delay is to aggressively schedule a series of sessions committed to forging further resolution. Simply taking a little more time without this adjustment in attitude would not be acceptable." In his letter, and at the hearing, Crapo offered to facilitate such scientific exchanges.

During the recent hearing Crapo challenged some of the federal documents' scientific premise and proposed policies.

As an example, Crapo said, is that there remains much disagreement about what actions are most likely to halt population declines.

The NMFS science center analysis supporting the documents points to the first year and the estuarine portions of the salmon's life cycle as areas where sufficient improvements could be made to reverse population declines. The proposed federal strategy emphasizes the need to improve habitat both where the listed fish spawn and their progeny hatch and rear and in the estuary.

Crapo said he has received conflicting information from scientists in the region that say the federal documents envisioned gains in the egg-to-smolt stage as unrealistic -- that survival in that first-year life stage have not decreased dramatically since the dams were built. They point to the need to improve survival during the smolt-to-adult life stage.

"Those are two very, very different conclusions about what the beset thing is to do over the next five years," Crapo said.

While making it clear that he does not favor dam breaching, Crapo questioned federal panelists at the hearing about the apparent shift to a habitat emphasis in federal recovery planning.

"Of all the H's, the biggest impact is the hydrosystem -- that's what I've been hearing for the past eight years. Now I'm hearing it's not," Crapo said.

NMFS' Michael Schiewe responded that "the impacts of the power system are much less than they used to be" because of passage improvements implemented over the years. He noted NMFS survival studies that showed juvenile salmon survival through the system now is similar to what it was before the four Snake River dams were built.

"We probably are coming to the point where there isn't a while lot to be gained," with hydrosystem passage improvements, said Schiewe, director of NMFS' Northwest Fisheries Science Center Fish Ecology Division.

"We're not convinced of that yet," Crapo press secretary Lindsay Nothern said following the hearing.

In his opening remarks Crapo said "I do not support breaching the dams but if the science says it's the dams then we should focus our limited resources on fixing the dams." He asked Doug Arndt of the Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, if there were any barriers to pushing forward with dam modifications -- such as more fish-friendly turbines, fish ladder improvements, screens and other apparatus.

"The simple answer is no," Arndt said. He pointed out that the BiOp does prescribe pushing ahead aggressively with research and capital improvements at the dams. A potential barrier could be money.

"Full implementation will require substantial increases in our appropriation," Arndt said. He estimated that as much as $5 million to $10 million would be needed to implement BiOp measures during the coming year "and more in outyears."

Crapo said that the federal plans' habitat emphasis is misapplied in many cases, noting that many Idaho drainages, such as the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, are relatively pristine yet salmon populations are declining.

He said that, without proper focus, the federal recovery strategy would fail, serving only to increase "federal control of habitat -- land and water -- that has traditionally been managed by the state."

"In the minds of some, that's not where the focus should be," Crapo added.

"I must repeat my own position that I see no evidence that flow augmentation will recover anadromous fish and I will not support any flow augmentation other than that agreed to by the state of Idaho, if any," Crapo said in his opening statement. The draft BiOp suggests continued flow augmentation as a means of aiding migration and potentially improving estuary survival.

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

by Barry Espenson
Crapo Challenges NMFS to Open BIOP Process
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 1, 2000

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