Salmon Habitats Face Cuts
by Glen Martin
The Bush administration proposed Tuesday an 80 percent reduction in designated habitat for endangered Pacific salmon and steelhead, leading environmentalists to charge that recovering populations of the rare fish could collapse once again.
Twenty populations of West Coast salmon and steelhead are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which requires that the government identify "critical habitat areas" -- the places where a listed species can recover. The plan put forth by the National Marine Fisheries Service designates habitat for the endangered fish in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California.
But the habitat proposed Tuesday is 80 percent less than the habitat identified by the service from 1999 to 2002, when it announced it would suspend the process pending further study. The proposal resumes the habitat- designation program.
"We've reduced the area under designation to one-fifth as large as it was, " said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the agency.
Critical habitat areas can be subject to restrictions on activities such as development, logging and grazing -- and Tuesday's proposal also emphasized that potential impacts on such economic activities would be weighed in the consideration of critical habitat.
A 60-day public comment period follows the announcement. The agency is expected to make a final decision on the matter by June 2005.
Gorman said the move was essentially procedural and wouldn't have a major impact on salmon and steelhead protection.
"The real teeth of the ESA (Endangered Species Act) comes from the listing itself, not the critical habitat," Gorman said. "(Critical habitat) is basically a red flag to other agencies that they have to be careful, to adjust their activities accordingly."
Gorman said that original critical habitat proposals for Pacific salmon and steelhead were more extensive than has turned out to be necessary because the agency had not completed its research -- and wanted to err, if at all, on the side of caution.
"We now have scientific tools and maps that allow much more refined determinations, that show which streams have viable populations (of fish), which should be critical habitat," Gorman said.
But Bill Kier, a Sausalito-based fisheries consultant who specializes in salmon and steelhead, said the announcement marked "a sea change" in federal policy, one that could prove disastrous for the fish.
"It's a default shredding of the ESA," Kier said. "Salmon and steelhead have essential freshwater stages, and they need precisely those areas NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) plans to abandon. If 80 percent of the critical habitat is to be cut, I don't see how these fish can sustain their recovery."
Kier said that much progress has been made in resuscitating populations of steelhead and coho and chinook salmon, particularly in California.
"This, however, could pull the rug out from lots of landowner groups, community groups and local agencies that have been working to bring these fish back," he said.
The agency did not announce which streams might be eliminated from the habitat program. In California, most of the coastal and Sacramento Valley rivers and streams were considered critical habitat for endangered salmon and steelhead prior to 2002.
While the clause emphasizing that economic considerations play a part in habitat designation might be viewed as an overture meant to reassure the business community, some private property and business rights groups felt it did not go far enough.
M. Reed Hopper, the principal attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a group that generally opposes endangered-species listings and has litigated successfully in a case involving the definition of wild endangered salmon, said an initial reading of a synopsis of the fisheries service's proposal left him uneasy.
"I'm dubious about whether the agency did an adequate economic analysis," Hopper said. "In the past, they guessed, speculated and overstated potential critical habitat. I hope they didn't do it in this case."
Zeke Grader, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, a commercial fishing lobbying group, also criticized the economic impacts alluded to in the announcement -- but for a reason different from Hopper's.
"I wish NMFS would also consider the economic impacts decades of habitat degradation have had on commercial, tribal and sport fisheries," he said. "These are industries that have been devastated by neglect of the resource."
In a separate move, the agency announced it would no longer consider removing federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to facilitate endangered salmon runs, saying the fish could be satisfactorily routed around the dams via fish ladders as they migrated to their spawning grounds.
(bluefish notes that downstream migration of juvenile salmon through the hydrosystem corridor is where most human-inflicted mortality occurs.)
|Direct Mortality||Fall Chinook||Spring Chinook||Steelhead|
(Mortality from 8 dams)
(Mortality from 8 reservoirs)
-- National Marine Fisheries Service, December 21, 2000 (more)
The move is a departure from the Clinton administration policy, which viewed dam removal as an option if all other approaches to restore the salmon proved unsuccessful.
"We saw that one coming for a while," Grader said. "At one point it definitely looked possible that four dams on the lower Snake River might be removed. But there was too much opposition from interests in the Columbia Basin that wanted to make sure Lewiston (Idaho) remained a deep-water port."
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