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Kempthorne Hires Fisheries Biologist as Consultant

by Eric Barker
The Lewiston Tribune, September 8, 2000

John McKern will help monitor federal agencies for the governor

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne has hired retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fisheries biologist John McKern of Walla Walla as a consultant.

McKern will help the governor and his salmon cabinet comment on the National Marine Fisheries Service biological opinion and All H's Paper, according to Kempthorne spokesman H.D. Palmer at Boise.

Palmer said the Idaho Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist also will play a role in preparing the state's testimony, but the governor will set the tone.

"The response is going to come from the governor and represent his views," said Palmer. Some view the hiring of McKern as an attempt by Kempthorne to counterbalance the views of state biologists who favor breaching the dams to recover the ailing runs.

"This is a nasty slap in the face of the Department of Fish and Game that has plenty of their own experts," said Scott Bosse of Idaho Rivers United.

McKern, who worked at the corps' Walla Walla district for his entire 29-year career, has been labeled as an advocate of barging juvenile salmon around the dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers. It's a label he accepts as long as it's qualified.

"If you had a natural river I would not advocate transporting fish around it, but the Snake and Columbia is not a natural river," he said. "As a fisheries biologist, I'd much prefer to see a natural river and see fish in natural habitat, but that is not what we have now."

McKern and the Fish and Game biologists often have viewed the salmon problem and potential solutions from opposite poles.

"It'd be fair to say we have interpreted things differently over the years and it's not just because I've worked for the corps."

For instance, department biologists favor breaching the dams and returning the river to a natural state as the best biological option for the fish. McKern supports making major system improvements at the dams to help young fish pass more efficiently and safely.

To support breaching, state fisheries biologists point to data that indicates fish that are not handled as juveniles, whether they are barged or use dam bypass systems, return at higher rates than handled fish.

But McKern believes that data is too scant to draw such conclusions.

"To me it's too risky to make management decisions on undetected fish."

Biologists for the state also use comparisons of salmon and steelhead runs below the four lower Snake River dams, but above the Columbia River dams, to support breaching. Similar downriver stocks have consistently returned at rates two to five times better than threatened and endangered Snake River stocks.

The state biologists argue the comparisons indicate the four dams are just too much for juvenile and adult fish to negotiate.

But McKern doesn't buy it. He points to research done by Canadian fisheries biologist David Welch that indicates the problem may be in the ocean and not in the river.

"They think the fish all go to the same locale in the ocean and they don't."

McKern believes the Snake River fish may be going to less healthy parts of the ocean and thus return in fewer numbers. He contends the Canadians understand the role of the ocean much better than U.S. scientists.

"You just can't make comparisons unless you really know what you are doing."

McKern favors barging juvenile fish around dams while the governor and the department favor spilling as many of the fish as possible.

Ed Bowles, anadromous fish manager for the department at Boise, said he and other department biologists are preparing comments on the federal documents and will submit them to the governor's office.

"We will be writing our own technical comments on the science undergirding the biological opinion and All H's paper. We will work with the governor's office on that and submit it under our ownership and hopefully it will be nested into their overall comments."

Bowles said the department would comment only on the technical merits of the biological opinion and would not advocate what it sees as the best solution to salmon passage problems.

"We will say whether or not what they are proposing will get the job done," he said. The biological opinion calls for several actions including improving salmon habitat in spawning streams and the Columbia River Estuary; reforming hatchery practices and using hatcheries as recovery tools in some areas; increasing stream flows and improving water quality; and freezing harvest levels at present rates.

Eric Barker
Kempthorne Hires Fisheries Biologist as Consultant
The Lewiston Tribune, September 8, 2000

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