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NOAA Launches 'Situation Assessment' of
Columbia River Basin Salmon, Steelhead Recovery

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 14, 2012

Planning and implementation is going well, yet a "more robust discussion is needed" to cement efforts to recover depleted Columbia River salmon and steelhead populations that are now protected under the Endangered Species Act, according to Barry Thom, deputy administrator for NOAA Fisheries' Northwest Region.

To that end, NOAA Fisheries this week reached out to interested parties, asking them to take part in interviews aimed at identifying key challenges facing the recovery effort, and helping inform solutions.

"I am writing to invite you to join us in considering how to best approach long-term salmon and steelhead recovery in the Columbia Basin," according to a Thom e-mail sent out Tuesday to about 150 entities and/or persons that have long been involved in salmon restoration/recovery issues. The mailing list includes entities representing federal, state and tribal governments, as well as well as power, agriculture, navigation, recreation, environmental and other interests.

"And we are saving room" for interested parties that may not have been on the initial mailing list, Thom said.

Welcome is "anybody that has an interest in the Columbia basin and Columbia basin salmon recovery," Thom said.

The federal agency has contracted with two neutral, university-based institutions -- the Oregon Consensus Program and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center --- to conduct a "situation assessment" of regional views about salmon recovery planning in the Columbia Basin in the long term. They are assembling an assessment team including academic expertise from Washington, Oregon and Idaho to conduct interviews with interested parties.

A situation assessment is an interview-based process undertaken to better understand and explore relevant issues and interests of involved parties and situation dynamics, Thom's letter says.

"The assessment team will reach out to a broad array of regional parties over the next several months to capture a range of perspectives."

Oregon Consensus is Oregon's official program for public policy consensus building, the letter says. It provides consensus building, facilitation, mediation and other conflict resolution services to public entities and their stakeholders in Oregon and throughout the Northwest. The Oregon Consensus program is part of the National Policy Consensus Center at Portland State University's Hatfield School of Government. The William D. Ruckelshaus Center is a neutral resource for collaborative problem solving in the Washington and the Pacific Northwest. The Center is hosted at the University of Washington by the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs and at Washington State University by WSU Extension. More information is available at

The assessment process is intended to "build on the momentum of our positive collaborations with local watershed councils, recovery boards, and other local groups over the last few years and take another step forward. We want to ensure our existing and future recovery plans are comprehensive and integrated," Thom said.

"A number of regional parties have expressed views that such an assessment would be informative to moving salmon recovery forward."

NOAA Fisheries is charged under the ESA with safeguarding listed salmon and steelhead, and developing recovery plans for conservation and survival of listed. A total of 13 Columbia/Snake river species are listed as either endangered or threatened.

Recovery plans must describe specific management actions; establish objective, measurable criteria for delisting; and estimate the time and cost to carry out measures needed to achieve recovery," according to NOAA Fisheries.

Recovery plans are guidance documents, not regulatory documents. A plan is intended as a road map for species recovery and is one of the most important tools to ensure sound scientific and logistical decision-making throughout the recovery process.

With long-established Columbia-Snake river listings -- the first occurred in 1991 -- recovery planning has been ongoing. A draft plan has been prepared for the lower Columbia River (coho, chum and chinook salmon and steelhead), and final plans are in the books for the Willamette River basin (chinook and steelhead), Mid-Columbia steelhead and upper Columbia steelhead and chinook. Plans are still in development for the Snake River region (steelhead, fall and spring/summer chinook and sockeye).

"NOAA Fisheries considers salmon recovery strategies within the context of Endangered Species Act, Tribal treaty and trust responsibilities, and other federal obligations," Thom's e-mail says. "In order to address these multiple mandates over the long term, we would like to better integrate existing and future recovery plans with Basin-wide strategies to address all elements of recovery. I believe that we will make better and more sustainable decisions that advance recovery with your engagement."

"I would like to hear your thoughts on how to work through the key challenges for salmon recovery," Thom said. The assessment will consist of a series of questions and should take about an hour," he said. Responses will be confidential and not attributed to any source Oregon Consensus and Ruckelshaus Center representatives will schedule interviews in the coming year.

Information gathered during the interviews may include:

The scope of the assessment is fairly broad, seeking views on recovery planning processes that would be used to address habitat, hatchery, harvest and hydro strategies. At the conclusion of the interviews, the centers will provide a summary report that identifies key issues, themes and options that might be useful in the long term.

Thom said he expects the assessment report will be available in late summer 2013.

"It will inform our consideration of all regional views and our next steps in 2014 and beyond. While the assessment is under way, current consultations and planning efforts will continue according to existing processes and schedules."

The new approach has drawn both cheers, and qualified support.

"I applaud the start of wide stakeholder engagement in a Northwest salmon recovery that benefits fish, people, the economy, clean energy and our shared environment," said Sara Patton, of the Northwest Energy Coalition. As director of an alliance representing consumers, utilities, clean energy businesses, labor, environmentalists, faith groups and others, I know that open, collaborative discussions among all interested parties offer the greatest opportunities for long-term success.

"Clearly, the exact form this collaboration will take after the initial input gathering is yet to be determined," Patton said. "We hope that the federal agencies move quickly to establish a formal solutions process. After decades of illegal salmon-recovery plans, it's high time to move forward with an approach that works."

"Northwest RiverPartners supports NOAA's focus toward basin-wide recovery because so many factors have contributed to salmons' declines. And, as NOAA's announcement clearly recognizes, regional salmon recovery needs to happen on a broad scale," according to a statement from NWRP Executive Director Terry Flores.

"NWRP also greatly appreciates that NOAA is drawing a clear distinction between broader long-term recovery efforts, versus the litigation over the more narrowly focused Biological Opinion that primarily addresses the impacts of federal hydro operations on salmon," Flores said. "The BiOp's hydro operations are only one factor affecting salmon, among many man-made and natural forces. Clearly, only a comprehensive approach encompassing all the factors limiting salmon survival throughout their lives will get us to the ultimate goal of salmon recovery.

"This movement toward long-term recovery does not include revisiting the biological opinion. Those deliberations are occurring in a different forum under the watchful eye of a federal district court judge. Recovery planning is the next logical step and represents progress along the road to recovery. RiverPartners intends to walk that road with NOAA, other federal agencies, state and tribes, and our fellow stakeholders."

Northwest RiverPartners is an alliance of farmers, utilities, ports and businesses that promote renewable hydropower and the multiple benefits of the Columbia and Snake River system and salmon restoration efforts based in sound science.

NOAA Launches 'Situation Assessment' of Columbia River Basin Salmon, Steelhead Recovery
Columbia Basin Bulletin, December 14, 2012

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