Judge Gives Feds Final Chance
by Nate Poppino
Conservation groups optimistic about order
A federal judge has given the government a final chance to shore up a plan to rescue salmon and steelhead populations across the Northwest, including species that travel from the ocean to Idaho's lakes and streams.
Last fall, lawyers for the Obama administration announced that federal officials would continue to defend a 2008 plan to help the fish recover. The administration then supplemented the plan with an adaptive-management policy in which declines in fish populations would trigger a variety of management actions.
Trouble is, the new components weren't properly introduced into the record of the case. In a letter sent Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden offered to give the federal government three months to formally incorporate the proposals into the 2008 salmon plan. The Obama administration has until this Friday to accept the offer; if it doesn't, Redden wrote, he'll go ahead and rule on the plan without considering the additional tweaks.
That would presumably be disastrous for the government, given Redden's statements about the Bush-era plan in previous letters. While the government faced criticism from both sides of the issue last year -- blasted by members of Congress and others for mentioning breaching four lower Snake River dams as a last-ditch option, and derided by environmentalists for not releasing a more aggressive plan -- Redden even last week complemented the adaptive addition's improvements.
It still could do more, however, Redden wrote. He encouraged federal officials to seize the opportunity to improve their plan. And, not satisfied with their narrower proposal to make adjustments over just 10 days, he reminded them they must use the best available science whether it supports their cause or not.
"They cannot rely exclusively on materials that support one position, while ignoring new or opposing scientific information," Redden wrote.
A NOAA Fisheries spokesman told the Associated Press last week that the government would have to carefully consider the judge's proposal. Idaho politicians and water users have in the past stated their fears that Redden will order more water for the fish from out of Idaho or for the four dams to be removed.
The environmental groups still opposing the government, meanwhile, declared last week's letter a victory.
"The federal government continues to shirk its responsibility under the Endangered Species Act, hoping conservation and fishing groups will grow tired of the fight and give up," stated Kevin Lewis, conservation policy director for Idaho Rivers United. "This most recent letter is encouraging because it appears that sooner than later the federal government will have to create a legal and scientifically sound salmon recovery plan."
The path to such a plan will require serious stakeholder negotiations that consider all options, including dam-breaching, wrote Greg Stahl, the group's assistant policy director.
Redden letter as PDF
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