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Ghost Plan Surfaces for Snake River Dams

by Margot Higgins
Environmental News Network, November 21, 2000

Just two months before the National Marine Fisheries Service released its draft biological opinion for salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest an opinion that put dam removal on the back burner a different resolution seems to have been on the tip of the federal agency's tongue.

Wild salmon populations on the Snake River have plummeted to less than 10 percent of their original range over the past four decades. An early version of the draft recovery plan that was released for federal eyes only on May 18 suggests that there was a more explicit call from the service for dam removal in order to save Snake and Columbia River salmon.

Wild salmon populations on the Snake River have plummeted to less than 10 percent of their original range over the past four decades. Eight species of salmon and steelhead that use the Columbia and Snake rivers as migration corridors between the ocean and their upriver spawning grounds are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

In July, the NMFS a federal agency that has the final say in salmon recovery released a long-awaited plan to save endangered salmon populations by restoring fish habitat, overhauling hatcheries, limiting harvest and improving river flow. The plan, which did not call for the immediate removal of dams, received heavy criticism from the conservation community.

The surprise release of the ghost plan arrives just weeks before the final version of the biological opinion, which is expected Dec. 15.

While the NMFS maintains that the two versions are similar and that the July opinion stemmed from a long series of draft opinions that included the May version, conservation groups and scientists argue that political pressure altered the agency's original conclusion.

"This ghost opinion shows us that the NMFS was poised to take a position that was most risk-adverse for the fish," said Ed Bowles, the anadromous fisheries manager for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. "Information from non-scientific sources changed their mind."

Although Bowles allows that the difference between the two documents is subtle, he said there could be "significant consequences" for salmon recovery. "The original document is a presumption of dam breaching and the July document is a presumption of non-breaching," Bowles explains.

Wild salmon populations on the Snake River have plummeted to less than 10 percent of their original range over the past four decades. In the original opinion, recently released to The Oregonian newspaper by an anonymous source, the NMFS said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should immediately prepare to remove the four lower Snake River dams and request congressional approval for their breaching in 2006. That request would only be revised if salmon rebounded to a measurable extent before that date.

The July plan delays preparations for dam removal for the next eight years and delays the possibility of dam removal for about 15 years. It also proposes continued studies and pilot projects and relies primarily on barging and trucking fish around dams.

The official draft biological opinion was warmly received by industry and politicians that oppose dam removal, but conservation groups and scientists argue that the Snake River salmon populations do not have that much time. While several groups have indicated they are open to dam removal alternatives, they say the NMFS has yet to come up with a viable option that will save the dwindling salmon populations.

"We do not feel that there are any plan B options besides dam removal that will provide recovery," said Bowles. "That has been our position since 1998 and no new scientific information contests that information. In fact, a lot of new information reinforces our position."

According to Bowles, even when nature's stars are perfectly aligned toward salmon survival, as has been the case in recent years, federal agencies are barely able to bump up the recovery rate for the endangered salmon populations.

"We find that when conditions are average, stalks will decline toward extinction, and when they are below average (in conditions of drought) the salmon slide very rapidly towards extinction," Bowles explained. "You can't always average above average. The benefit of nature doesn't always get us off the hook. We need to better address the human caused factor of mortality."

Bowles recommended that policymakers use the next six years to prepare the public for "meeting the needs of the fish, which probably will require more direct action with dams."

"The bottom line is that the 'ghost' biological opinion involves a plan that is much more in line with the science than the draft biological plan that is out on the streets," said Rob Masonis, Northwest director for American Rivers.

"It makes no sense to put dam removal on the back burner and to place all eggs in the 'other measures' basket, when there are no affective alternatives to dam removal that the NMFS has put on the table," Masonis said. "A big illusion among the public is that those alternatives (to dam removal) have been identified by the NMFS. Somewhere between May 18 and the draft biological opinion that is now public, a decision was made to abandon the course that was consistent with the best science. The NMFS doesn't have that freedom."

Related Links:
The Oregoian Unreleased Federal Plan - 11/18/00 by Jonathan Brinckman

Margot Higgins
Ghost Plan Surfaces for Snake River Dams
Environmental News Network, November 21, 2000

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