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Salmon Decision Appealed

by Mitch Lies, Staff Writer
Capital Press, December 30, 2005

The federal agency in charge of protecting endangered salmon has appealed a U.S. district judge's ruling that the agency's plan to protect salmon in the Columbia Basin violates the Endangered Species Act.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of NOAA Fisheries, filed the appeal with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Dec. 21, even while the agency was complying with an earlier order from U.S. District Judge James Redden to rewrite its plan.

Redden rejected the plan last spring, saying it failed to protect salmon from an ongoing population decline. He gave the agency until December 2006 to complete a new salmon protection plan, also called a biological opinion.

Redden also last year ordered the Bush administration to increase spills over four dams in the Columbia and Snake river system for a 10-week period from June to August. Government economists estimate those spills - enacted to flush juvenile salmon past turbines - cost the government $74 million in lost electrical power.

Redden is expected to decide early next year whether to order the Bonneville Power Administration to increase spills over and above what NMFS has proposed for the spring and summer of 2006. He heard oral arguments in support and in opposition to the increased spills Dec. 15 in Portland.

Redden said during the hearing that he was inclined to call for increased spills in summer months, but that he hadn't made up his mind whether to call for increased spills in the spring, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries who was at the hearing. Gorman said Redden indicated he was inclined to steer clear of reservoir drawdowns in the summer.

Under an operation plan put forward by environmental groups that includes increased spills and drawdowns, power costs in the region could increase as much as $450 million next year. The vast majority of those costs would be passed on to Northwest rate payers, according to federal officials.

The dispute over how to operate dams this spring and summer comes at a time when NOAA Fisheries is working with tribal interests and state governments to develop a comprehensive plan for salmon recovery that takes into account regionwide hatchery and fisheries activities and the condition of salmon habitat.

The agency hopes to complete the comprehensive salmon recovery plan by December 2006.

Steve Mashuda, a lawyer for the environmental law firm EarthJustice, said NOAA's actions send mixed signals. On one hand, he said, the agency is engaged in a remand, rewriting the 2004 biological opinion. On the other hand, he said, the agency is fighting the court's ruling requiring it to conduct the remand.

“We're still seeing the federal agencies trying to avoid the problems rather than addressing them,” he said.

Redden's rejection last spring of NOAA's 2004 biological opinion marked the second time he remanded a NOAA salmon plan. Redden also rejected the agency's 2000 biological opinion. That rewrite formed the basis of the 2004 biological opinion.

Federal courts have rejected all four of NOAA's biological opinions for the Columbia/Snake river system dating back to 1994.

Mitch Lies, Staff Writer
Salmon Decision Appealed
Capital Press, December 30, 2005

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