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Science Panel's Negative Report
Stalls Feds' RM&E Projects

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - April 4, 2003

Federal officials say they will go back to the drawing board with four of five research projects -- all intended to satisfy salmon recovery plan requirements -- after the Independent Scientific Review Panel late last week delivered a strongly negative review of the plans.

The NOAA Fisheries and the federal "action" agencies have since the December 2000 release of the Columbia/Snake hydrosystem biological opinion been developing a research, monitoring and evaluation plan to chart progress made toward improving salmon and steelhead survival. A companion U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service BiOp, like the NOAA Fisheries document, prescribes actions both off-site and in the hydrosystem that can be taken to avoid jeopardizing the survival of species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Those fish species include numerous salmon and steelhead stocks, bull trout and white sturgeon.

Many elements of the plan were channeled, for review and funding, through the Northwest Power and Conservation Council fish and wildlife program's mainstem/systemwide provincial review. Several were found scientifically worthy by the ISRP during that process. Others were not.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which funds the program, asked that time be allowed for a refinement of those projects and a second review. All of the projects proposals were developed by NOAA Fisheries. In addition to its obligation to the Council program under the Northwest Power Act, BPA is a BiOp action agency. The others are the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. The Council program attempts to mitigate for hydrosystem impacts on all fish and wildlife, not just listed species, in the Columbia River Basin.

BPA was targeting next week's NPCC meeting for an expedited recommendation from the Council on the five projects. But four appear stalled for now.

"We'd like to move ahead with the one" proposal that the ISRP deemed fundable after the second review, said Bob Austin, BPA deputy director of fish and wildlife. "But we'll probably pull back the other four."

Bonneville would make any final decision on what would be funded through the program. The federal power marketing agency had earlier asked that a Council recommendation for the projects be expedited. A Council decision on the other fish and wildlife projects in the mainstem/systemwide province is scheduled for the May meeting.

The urgency is to have certain RM&E elements in place before the first major BiOp "check-in." The check-ins are scheduled at the end of fiscal years 2003, 2005 and 2008 to judge if the federal BiOps actions are being implemented on schedule, and ultimately determine through the RM&E if the harvest, habitat, hydrosystem, and hatchery actions are improving survivals.

The ISRP gave qualified support for one proposal -- "Develop and Implement an Integrated Subbasin-scale States and Watershed-scale Effectiveness Monitoring Program for Salmonid Populations and Habitat."

But the panel said the four others "are not technically justified and do not make a convincing case that they will satisfy the requirements in the BiOp RPAs."

Austin said Wednesday that that BPA, in consultation with NOAA Fisheries, will reinitiate the project development process, "and hopefully be able to file those gaps later on." The agency would still like the see projects addressing those specific RM&E plan needs filled before the end of the fiscal year.

The effort will focus on strengthening and updating the RM&E plan developed by federal work groups. The agencies plan to take advantage of the ISRP critique, and request input from the region's state and tribal fish and wildlife managers, Austin said.

BPA will also ask the Independent Scientific Advisory Board to scrutinize the RM&E plan and offer advice on how project proposals might be better focused to address "gaps" in the federal plan. The ISAB was formed jointly by the NPCC and NOAA Fisheries.

"Maybe we have the cart before the horse," Austin said the proposals panned by the ISRP. After that RM&E plan review is completed, hopefully by sometime in May, the agency would consider issuing a more targeted "request for studies," as the ISRP had recommended after its first review of the projects.

"As evident in the RME Framework document and the recent Request for Studies effort, the RME group has made an effort to identify ongoing projects that meet BiOp needs," the ISRP said of the federal effort. A RFS was launched late last month to fill other perceived gaps in the plan.

"However, in the case of new proposals that have not made it through the project selection process, and in fact have received 'not fundable' recommendations from the ISRP, a fairer and likely more productive approach to generate the best projects to meet RPA needs would be for Bonneville to send out a targeted solicitation."

The five research projects that have been under consideration would cost an estimated $42.5 million over a five-year period.

The one project that did receive an ISRP funding recommendation was described as "an excellent, well-organized proposal for status and trend monitoring and it addresses the question of monitoring the combined effects of multiple habitat actions over time."

The project seeks to develop, as subbasin scale pilot programs, status and trend monitoring efforts for salmon and steelhead and their habitat in the upper Wenatchee and Grande Ronde river basins.

"The ISRP strongly recommends funding of this proposal. However, we again raise the question of relations of the proposal to not only the BiOp mandates, but also the monitoring needs of the Council's fish and wildlife program and other state, federal and tribal responsibilities in the Columbia basin," the ISRP said. The project's cost is estimated to be $20.5 million over five years.

"At issue is the whole basinwide monitoring effort. To base the basinwide efforts only on the NMFS BiOp mandates seems shortsighted and a sensitive issue," the panel said. The scientists mention, as they have in past reviews, a Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority proposal with a similar mission, but a broader approach, than the NOAA Fisheries project.

"The ISRP trusts that the proposal 35033 (the CBFWA plan) is to be seriously considered for funding the overarching coordination for monitoring efforts in the Columbia Basin as previously recommended," the ISRP wrote.

The ISRP, in its most recent RM&E review and in the provincial review, stressed the need for an "integrated effort."

"The revised proposals do not demonstrate or describe a well-coordinated effort toward the development of a systematic and thorough approach to RM&E," the ISRP wrote. "Also, the reviewed proposals do not provide a pilot project for coordination with other regional RM&E programs."

In a segment of the March 24 report that discusses the use of targeted solicitation to fill the RM&E plan's gaps, the ISRP praises the federal agency for heeding the NPCC's advice by attempting to address some RM&E needs through existing fish and wildlife projects.

"A recommendation to use currently implemented projects motivates the RME group to review what is already under way in the basin, identify opportunities to utilize and modify existing projects to meet gaps, instill consistency, avoid redundancy, and thus work towards developing an efficient and cost-effective RME program," the scientists said.

"We're still after the same thing," said Doug Marker, the NPCC's fish and wildlife director. Both he and the ISRP noted that the federal agencies have been working more closely with other fish and wildlife managers to better integrate the federal and state/tribal efforts.

"Bonneville's shown a willingness to regroup on this," Marker said.

Related Sites:
Northwest Power and Conservation Council: BPA:
NMFS, NW region:

Barry Espenson
Science Panel's Negative Report Stalls Feds' RM&E Projects
Columbia Basin Bulletin, April 4, 2003

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