Feds Ask for Extension on Salmon Planby Matthew Daly, Associated Press
San Francisco Chronicle, April 30, 2004
A federal agency that is rewriting a salmon recovery plan for the Pacific Northwest has asked for a six-month extension that would delay a final decision until after the presidential election.
A federal judge ordered NOAA Fisheries to rewrite its recovery plan, known as a biological opinion, last May, after ruling that the existing blueprint violates the Endangered Species Act.
U.S. District Judge James Redden set a June 2 deadline for the new plan. The previous plan, adopted in late 2000 by the Clinton administration, remains in effect while the rewrite is completed.
But in court papers filed this week, the fisheries agency, formerly known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, said it needs another six months to do the job. The agency said the comprehensive nature of the recovery plan, and the extensive work it has done with the four affected states -- Washington, Oregon, Montana and Idaho -- as well as Indian tribes and conservation groups in the region, make delay unavoidable.
Some environmentalists are skeptical, saying the Bush administration wants to postpone the politically sensitive decision until after the Nov. 2 election.
"Our view is that they are asking for much more of an extension than is practically necessary or legally warranted," said Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice, an advocacy group that filed a lawsuit challenging the original biological opinion on behalf of environmental groups.
True and other conservationists say they would not object to an extension of up to three months to allow the government to do a thorough job. But they say six months is too much time.
"It's hard to speculate about motives; certainly there is an event out there in November they might be concerned about," True said Friday.
"I think some extension is reasonable and fair to provide," said Nicole Cordan, policy and legal director for Save Our Wild Salmon, another group involved in the case. "The amount of time the federal folks are seeking just seems more political than necessary."
Brian Gorman, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries, denied that politics played any role in the extension request, which was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Portland, Ore.
The main reason for the delay is simply to allow the government more time to work with the states, Indian tribes and others in hopes of finding common ground, Gorman said.
"The judge has made it clear all along that he wants us to work more closely with the states and tribes on this, and we are happy to do that," Gorman said. "It just means it is likely we will need an extension of time."
Gorman scoffed at the idea that the delay was political.
"Obviously we know when the election is," he said. "There are so many things that will happen between now and November that it's sort of silly to assume this one thing would make a difference" in the election results in any of the four states. (Oregon and Washington were both swing states in the 2000 election)
The extension request comes as the Bush administration considers a major policy shift on salmon protection. A draft plan being considered by NOAA Fisheries would add hatchery-bred salmon to any decision about protecting wild fish runs under the Endangered Species Act.
Bob Lohn, the agency's regional administrator, said the policy change was required by a recent federal appeals court ruling that forces officials to count all fish that are genetically related.
Conservation groups have criticized the plan, saying it would let the federal government off the hook for its responsibility to recover salmon throughout the West Coast.
Lohn said the language may change, and a final policy may be ready by June.
NOAA Fisheries: www.nmfs.noaa.gov
Save Our Wild Salmon: www.wildsalmon.org
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