the film


Commentaries and editorials

Analysis: Judge Alarmed
Over Extinction Clock

by Bill Rudolph
NW Fishletter, April 16, 2009

1999 Portland billboard reads, BiOp judge James Redden surprised everyone at a recent meeting among litigants (no public or court reporter allowed) with his continual references that Snake River salmon were going extinct by 2017. He seems to have been misled by an old study that has since been proven to be totally wrong.

Federal agencies asked for the meeting to explain a new agreement that would add more habitat restoration efforts in the Columbia estuary. Redden expressed concern about the lack of estuary actions during oral arguments last month. At that meeting, federal attorneys had reminded him that for the past several years wild fall chinook had been returning in numbers that exceeded the interim recovery rate.

Attendees reported being puzzled by his remarks, but the judge said nothing to explain why he had come up with the year 2017.

However, after a little detective work (two minutes on the Internet), I think I know where he found it. There is a good chance that the good judge has been trolling the Web for comments about the latest salmon plan. Maybe he even Googles himself to see what people are saying about him.

He may have stumbled on a March 23 article in the High Country News with the headline, "2017 is Just Around the Corner," written by one Paul Van Develder, who was billed as a contributor to Writers on the Range and a resident of Corvallis, Ore.

"I've been writing about the Great Salmon War in the Columbia River Basin for so long that by now you'd think I'd have grown a tail and fins," his article began. "When I wrote my first stories, Moby Dick was a minnow, my 30-year-old son was still in middle school and the projected extinction date for salmon, 2017, seemed like a long way off."

Well, to some of us who have been covering these issues for years, the extinction date for salmon still seems like a long way off, but a stiff dose of reality--i.e., fish numbers--doesn't seem to mean much to dam-breaching supporters like Van Develder.

Mr. V's functional extinction date of 2017 obviously comes from a 1999 study commissioned by scientist Phil Mundy, who once worked for CRITFC, and later served as a member of the original group who wrote the 'Return to the River' report that called for a return to a more "normative" state of the Columbia and Snake rivers. He now works for NOAA Fisheries and runs NMFS' Auke Bay Lab in Juneau, Alaska.

Mundy dubbed the original 1999 version of his extinction analysis "The Doomsday Clock." We wrote about it in NW Fishletter. The poetic Doomsday reference echoed Cold War rhetoric and the possibility of nuclear winter, but the work itself was pretty weak.

Our story included a critique by UW fisheries professor Jim Anderson, who said Mundy's analysis didn't reflect the real world very well.

"Mundy's analysis indicates that Snake River salmon would go extinct if they all returned at the same time and if the extremely poor environmental conditions of the early 1990s continued into the future. Fortunately for salmon, their evolutionary strategy is more robust than Mundy's mathematical fish and the real climate is less hostile than his model's climate," he said.

But Mundy stuck to his guns.

"I have to ask those who are forecasting improved ocean conditions, 'When may we expect to see more spring and summer spawners as a result?' Time is the essence of the extinction problem, and timing, quite literally, is everything. Let them step up to the plate and make some predictions of their own. My predictions succeed or fail based on the numbers of fish on the spawning grounds, not on the longing for better ocean conditions," he said in an email at the time.

In 2001, Mundy updated his clock and we wrote about it again (see NW Fishletter 124).

"The updated version, which still uses the Doomsday theme and was completed by Mundy and Dr. Gretchen Oosterhout, predicts median 'functional extinction' of the stocks in about 15 years, similar to the earlier report. But the newer analysis uses recruit/spawner data and an expanded time frame (1985-1999). However, it deliberately excluded brood years from the early 1980s (used by NMFS in its own analysis) because the time frame showed 'anomalously high productivities,' according to the authors, who noted that the high rates of return could be due to a number of factors, including climate trends, increased flows, and/or a response to harvest rate reductions."

A few weeks before Mundy released his second report, the spring chinook count had climbed 10 times higher than the previous 10-year average at Bonneville Dam. On one single spring day--April 17--27,000 springers were counted. That was nearly three times the size of the entire spring run in 1999, when Mundy first wound up his Doomsday Clock.

But that's all water over the dam, I guess. The judge seems convinced that the pseudo-scientific hoopla being peddled by dam-breaching advocates is gospel. Mundy himself begged off any comment.

"Being in a leadership position in the agency responsible for the BiOp, albeit geographically remote from the CRB, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to join this dialogue," he relayed via email last week.

Maybe Mundy remembered that he had predicted some stocks should have disappeared by now. Let's look directly at Doomsday's 2001 scripture, which included a table that predicted spring chinook stocks in Idaho's Marsh Creek and Oregon's Imnaha River would go extinct as early as 2007.

The redd count (salmon nests) for Marsh Creek was exactly zero in 1999, but it jumped up to 409 by 2003, then deteriorating ocean conditions helped to drop that back to 48 redds by 2006.

For the Imnaha, redd counters in 1999 estimated only 191, but 1,123 redds appeared in 2002, and 276 in 2006.

No runs have gone extinct or close to it since the Doomsday Clock began counting down, while more big fish numbers are expected again in the next few years. The ocean rules all.

But judging from his own comments at the April 2 fiasco, Judge Redden seems to be taking credit away from Mother Nature for the salmon runs' continued survival. He appears to believe that his own court-ordered spill is the secret ingredient that has kept these runs from tanking.

According to meeting notes from an attorney whose client authorized their release, "The judge began the meeting by noting that the Obama administration had recently reversed a Bush administration policy to promote logging, and expressed the view that the new Administration might be more 'open.' He [the judge] suggested that 'by the year 2017, the wild fish will be dead' and that 'we have done nothing about it but spills.' He stated that he wanted to amend the BiOp to make it 'viable' and 'save the fish.'"

The judge's apparent thinking runs contrary to a recent NOAA Fisheries memo that looked at last year's high sockeye returns and found from little to negative correlation between spill added in 2006 and last year's adult numbers.

Reportedly, the feds are working on a broader analysis that shows added spill doesn't correlate with adult chinook and steelhead returns, either.

This really shouldn't be any great news, since the NMFS scientists have said for years they can't find any correlation between juvenile survival through the hydro system and adult returns, but do see a relation between ocean indicators and returns.

The penultimate conclusion is that the ocean plays an overwhelming role in determining future fish survival--enough so that return rates can change by an order of a magnitude in the span of just a few years.

But it's seemingly a view not shared by Judge Redden, who is now fretting over extinction risks and wants to know if the federal defendants are willing to ask the Corps to breach the dams if things don't work out.

But that's not all he wants. He's also pushing for more of everything. In a letter to BiOp parties before the meeting, he wondered whether the added spill operations, which the feds have already agreed to extend this year, will be continued after 2009, and whether more flows can be squeezed out of Canada and Montana.

The judge also wanted to know if habitat-improvement projects completed over the past few years are resulting in projected survival benefits. Evidently, the Colville Tribal attorney had to explain to him that it would take many years for such work to pay off.

But Redden said the Corps should start studying breaching now, because it will be too late to save the fish if it takes 10 years to decide that the BiOp is not working. According to the attorney's notes, "he [the judge] observed that he did not know whether the federal defendants had the 'courage' to take this step, noting that even the Clinton administration did not like dam breaching."

President Obama himself did not support breaching the dams during the campaign. Nor has his pick for heading the Commerce Department, former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, supported the drastic action in the past.

Meanwhile, the feds, who have already said they won't reopen the hydro BiOp for consultation, are reportedly asking the Obama administration for guidance.

They have undergone a complete mood change since March, when they were nearly high-fiving each other on the way out of the courtroom, confident they could deal with Redden's concerns.

Before he adjourned that March hearing, Redden suggested the feds could add language similar to that in the 2000 BiOp, so if the habitat improvements did not work, the region would study breaching one or more dams on the lower Snake.

"I don't know if breaching of the dams is the solution," he said, but he thought that in five or seven years, the region should take a look and see how the runs are progressing.

One thing is obvious: the extra billion dollars BPA has promised to pay to support this new salmon plan hasn't impressed the judge enough to go along with it.

Just how much more he can extract from the defendants remains to be seen. As one attorney observed, attempting to solve the problem with money "is really not working, only feeding the fire."

Meanwhile, spring chinook runs are poised for some jaw-dropping returns in the near future, especially next year, according to federal scientists. Judging from trawl surveys that counted juvenile salmon last summer off the mouth of the Columbia, they say the 2010 spring run could easily be the largest return since Bonneville Dam was built in 1938.

But the elderly judge is working on his legacy. I don't blame him for being concerned. I wouldn't want the fish to wink out on my watch, either. But he shouldn't be duped by another phony salmon analysis, which would call into question his sense of judgment.

You've got to hand it to him. Judge Redden may be in his dotage, but he has the feds over a barrel, and is likely to be granted more concessions no matter how wrong-headed they may be.

And though now 80, his hearing must still be pretty good as well. Only he can hear that Doomsday Clock still ticking away.

Related Pages:
2017 is Just Around the Corner by Paul VanDevelder, High Country News, 3/23/9
Will We Save Our Salmon? by Ted Kerasote, Sports Afield Magazine, 3/1

Bill Rudolph
Analysis: Judge Alarmed Over Extinction Clock
NW Fishletter, April 16, 2009

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