Montana Intervenesby Staff
A federal judge in Oregon last week granted Montana the intervenor status it had requested a day earlier in a complicated lawsuit over salmon recovery affected by Columbia Basin dams. This action gives the state "an equal seat at the table," according to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, and seeks to protect several species of fish by maintaining higher water levels longer at the Libby and Hungry Horse dams.
Earlier this summer, U.S. District Judge James Redden ordered five dams in the Columbia Basin to release water to aid salmon heading for the Pacific Ocean. His order, upheld by a federal appeals court, affects water flows through the end of this month. The judge also scheduled a Sept. 14 status hearing in Portland to discuss ongoing negotiations.
The governor said in his Aug. 23 statement supporting the intervenor request that the Kootenai and Flathead River systems are home to "several important and sensitive fish species," including the white sturgeon (which is listed under the federal Endangered Species Act as endangered), the bull trout (listed as threatened), and the west slope cutthroat trout (legal efforts are under way to list it as threatened).
The request to intervene also stemmed from concern over how the lawsuit might impact both Montanans' utility bills and grain transport on the lower Snake River and Columbia River. "Montanans are willing to pay their fair share for measures that protect endangered species, but paying an inordinate price for them is something I must take steps to avoid," the governor stated. The Bonneville Power Administration has estimated Judge Redden's order could cost $67 million and cause ratepayers in a four-state region to make up the difference.
As for grain transportation (more than 40 percent of the state's exported wheat is transported via Columbia River barges), Gov. Schweitzer stated, "Even a few cents increase in that transportation cost, for some Montana growers, may represent the difference between selling grain at a profit, or not selling it all."
The lawsuit was initially filed by the National Wildlife Federation and 15 other groups against the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Oregon has intervened as a plaintiff, as have two irrigators' groups. Montana joins Idaho and several utility and farm groups (plus Alcoa and the Machinists Union) as intervenor defendants.
All Montana really wants out of the deal is to hold back the water an additional month to help the fish here, according to Bruce Measure of Helena, one of the state's two representatives on the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. He and fellow council member Rhonda Whiting were appointed by Gov. Schweitzer.
Mr. Measure, previously a Kalispell attorney and former president of the Flathead Electric Cooperative board of trustees, indicated that while Montana cares about salmon, " our own fish are affected, too."
Montana is being represented in the suit by Mark Stermitz, an attorney with Bullivant Houser Bailey in Portland. A Montanan, he has been an attorney for the Port of Portland and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Mr. Measure said his fees are being paid through the Attorney General's Office.
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