Flip-Flop on Salmon Habitat
The federal government is recommending a huge change in how it would protect rivers for salmon and steelhead.
That means the feds have some explaining to do — a job made more difficult considering their recent, poor record on salmon issues.
With a single rule proposed Tuesday, the government now asserts that tens of thousands of miles of Western rivers are no longer critical for scarce salmon and steelhead. The turnabout is stunning.
Clean, pristine rivers are essential to restoring one of the region's most threatened and remarkable wild species; preserving other creatures, such as bears and eagles, that depend on a thriving salmon population; and ensuring a fishing season that could be worth tens of millions of dollars a year to small towns along Central Idaho's Salmon River. The question is: How much habitat is enough?
About 27,000 miles of river from Southern California to the Canadian border, according to NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency assigned to handle salmon recovery. While that's a lot of river, it's also an 80 percent reduction from what the agency deemed critical less than five years ago.
At issue is critical habitat — rivers considered essential to salmon and steelhead survival, according to the Endangered Species Act. Critical habitat signals other agencies that they must consider the needs of endangered species before they approve projects in an area.
In February 2000, during the Clinton presidency, NOAA Fisheries spelled out what it considered critical habitat and said these designations would have no economic impact. The National Association of Home Builders disagreed and sued. A federal court ruled that the agency had failed to consider economic costs of critical habitat. The result was the NOAA Fisheries' proposal Tuesday to scale back critical habitat to areas where salmon and steelhead have been observed or where a biologist with local expertise "would presume them to occur."
The precise impacts on Idaho are unclear. NOAA Fisheries spokesman Brian Gorman was unsure Wednesday how many miles of Idaho river would remain critical habitat or how many miles would lose that designation.
NOAA Fisheries' idea has some logic to it: identifying and improving "the most beneficial biological habitat" for salmon, said Bob Lohn, the agency's regional administrator. That's why Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, likes the new rule; he thinks it would focus recovery efforts where they would do the most good, spokesman Sidney Smith said.
Perhaps it would. Or perhaps it would limit habitat work so much that it would actually set back recovery. Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United, an environmental group, wondered aloud Wednesday: Will Idaho sockeye salmon — pushed to the brink of extinction and to a portion of its historic range — be relegated only to Redfish Lake near Stanley?
As the administration tries to explain its turnabout, its recent, abysmal history on salmon doesn't lend much credibility. The administration has argued that genetically similar — but less hardy — hatchery fish are as valuable as wild fish in recovering salmon and steelhead. The administration has argued that manmade dams are simply part of the natural environment young fish must navigate en route to the Pacific Ocean.
That doesn't make the administration's new "critical habitat" definition wrong. But a flip-flop of this magnitude does raise questions about how reliable the administration's fishery-management decisions really are.
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