by Greg Stahl
Council ponies up $2.7 million in recovery funds anyway
An 11-scientist panel recommended earlier this month that stocks of endangered sockeye salmon be cut from the life support system that has kept them alive for the past 25 years.
Nevertheless, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council bucked the recommendation from its Independent Science Review Panel and unanimously recommended $2.75 million to bolster the sockeye's chances for survival.
"We greatly appreciate the contribution that (the scientific review panel members) make, but we don't necessarily always follow their recommendations exactly," said council Chairman Tom Karier. "I think the long-term survival of the sockeye is more than just a scientific question.
"The scientific board was valuable in pointing out that this is a high-risk investment. But we do make high-risk investments, particularly when they involve endangered species."
The $2.7 million represents an increase of $1 million over one-time capital improvement appropriations that had been set out for this year, Karier said. Renovations at the Eagle Hatchery in Idaho and Oxbow Hatchery in Oregon would increase the output of sockeye salmon for release in Central Idaho.
But if the 11 scientists are right, it will be money down the drain.
As part of a 712-page June 2 report, the power and conservation council's Independent Science Review Panel opined that sockeye populations have stagnated to the point of no return in River of No Return country. Salmon River basin populations are already genetically extinct, and efforts to restore the fish are not worth the expense, the board said.
"At this time it appears the (Salmon River sockeye) is extinct in the wild, and reintroduction efforts have not proceeded easily or successfully," the report states.
The panel cited dams and other downstream factors as reasons for ending the cooperative sockeye breeding-and-rearing program, which was initiated in 1991 just before the Salmon River sockeye was placed on the federal endangered species list.
"Not only are these limiting conditions not likely to change, the fish themselves are likely to be changing as a result of present intensive propagation and rearing procedures so that their viability even under restored conditions is increasingly in doubt," the panel wrote.
The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to work to prevent extinction unless a seven-member Cabinet-level commission, coined the "God Squad," votes to eliminate the species under The Evolution of National Wildlife Law, a seldom-used provision of the Endangered Species Act.
Karier said he does not believe the 11 scientists' opinion could precipitate the invocation of a so-called God Squad, but added that he has little experience dealing with such issues.
The authors of "Federal Public Land and Resources Law" point out that such an action is unlikely in most situations because alternatives are usually available, the process for convening one is complex and difficult, and potential applicants fear bad publicity.
Scientists say between 25,000 and 35,000 sockeye used to return each fall to Redfish Lake, south of Stanley. The lake's name is derived from the shimmering glow the red-bodies fish created when they inundated the waters of their birth -- after returning some 900 miles from the wide, blue Pacific Ocean -- to spawn a new generation.
But only six returned in 2005, and only two returned in 2003. Along with several years of relatively successful returns, an average of 16 sockeye make it back to the upper Salmon River basin each year, according to the report.
The review panel's June 2 findings also got prompt attention from the Gem State's governor.
"It would not be the policy of this administration to abandon the recovery of sockeye salmon," Idaho Gov. Jim Risch told the council Wednesday morning.
Qualifying that Idaho is still opposed to lower Snake River dam removal as an option to salmon recovery, he said a greater effort must be made to bring the species back.
For the time being, efforts to recover the sockeye will occur in the state's cooperative broodstock program, where rearing fish in the hatchery from the egg stage to adulthood is thought to maximize survival and reproduction.
The program is a cooperative effort with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the University of Idaho and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-Fisheries.
It is funded by the Bonneville Power Administration as partial mitigation for the federal Columbia River power system, which includes four dams on the lower Snake River and four on the lower Columbia River.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council, formerly named the Northwest Power Planning Council, reviews salmon funding by the Bonneville Power Administration. Bonneville, a regional power marketing agency, sells electricity from Columbia basin hydroelectric dams and also pays for damage to salmon habitat by spending money on hatcheries.
In addition to the one-time capital expenditure announced Wednesday, about $2 million a year is spent on a hatchery program, based in Eagle, to raise about 160,000 sockeye smolts -- juvenile salmon -- that are released for their trips to the ocean, and maybe back.
Idaho's signature salmon species, the chinook, was listed as a threatened species in 1992, and also are the focus of major state, tribal and federal recovery programs.
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