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Commentaries and editorials

States, Others Want Major Changes
in Fed Recovery Plan

by Barry Espenson
Columbia Basin Bulletin - October 6, 2000

Columbia Basin states, tribes and others have all pointed out what they see as major flaws in two draft federal salmon recovery documents designed to ensure survive of 12 salmon and steelhead species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A draft Federal Columbia River Power System biological opinion released July 27 judged that proposed hydrosystem operations posed jeopardy to the survival of eight of the 12 Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead "evolutionarily significant units" listed under the Endangered Species Act. The National Marine Fisheries Service document outlines a series of "reasonable and prudent alternatives" to proposed hydrosystem operations that the agency believes necessary to avoid jeopardizing those stocks.

The document also describes "off-site" mitigation measures it feels necessary to improve salmon survivals to the point that jeopardy can be avoided. Those proposals to improve harvest and hatchery practices and habitat, as well as hydro passage, are described in a companion document, "Basinwide Salmon Recovery Strategy," produced by a caucus of federal agencies.

The deadline for technical comments on the drafts from the states, tribes and other interested parties was Sept. 27, though federal officials say comments are still trickling in. NMFS and the caucus agencies will now "look at the comments and see how we can improve this document," NMFS' Brian Gorman said of the draft BiOp. Final versions of the BiOp and recovery strategy are expected to be released in December.

Though the states of Oregon and Washington lauded the general "all-H" approach to seeking survival gains by improving the hydrosystem, habitat and harvest and hatchery and hatchery operations, they suggested more than a fine-tuning of the documents.

The state of Oregon questions the calculations used in determining that prescribed actions will avoid jeopardy to the listed species.

"The BiOp over-estimates the probabilities of survival and recovery of listed salmon and steelhead," reads a Sept. 29 cover letter to NMFS from Gov. John Kitzhaber's natural resources adviser, Paula Burgess.

"As a result, the BiOp underestimates the survival improvements necessary for the survival and recovery of listed populations. This is because the BiOp bases its evaluation of survival and recovery risks, and its standards for survival improvements, primarily on optimistic assumptions," Burgess wrote.

"The BiOp over-estimates fish survival improvements resulting from relatively small changes (essentially status quo) to the federal hydropower system. It ultimately bases its new jeopardy determination on a 'full mitigation standards' that understates the survival improvements that should be provided by the federal hydropower system and anticipated fish survival improvements from proposed harvest, hatcheries and habitat measures."

Oregon also faulted the BiOp for the methods -- a set of performance standards -- it plans to use to measure success, saying "they do not appear up to this task."

"Neither does the BiOp describe or commit the federal government to specific and definite plans to have an alternative RPA ready to go if the proposed RPA fails," Burgess wrote. "Steps necessary for the timely implementation of an alternative RPA (NEPA, congressional authorization, mitigation planning, etc.) should be completed concurrent with the implementation and evaluation of the proposed RPA."

The Oregon letter also asked that the BiOp "commit the federal government to working collaboratively with the states and tribes of the region to plan, implement and evaluate BiOp measures. The BiOp should establish the states and tribes as partners in the recovery of listed salmon and steelhead. It should ensure that recovery measures are coordinated and integrated with state and tribal programs currently under way that will benefit listed fish and wildlife species in the Columbia Basin."

Oregon comments pointed to the need to better synchronize some of the BiOp's proposed measures, specifically those related to flow restoration and habitat acquisition, with state law and state and local processes.

While also applauding the general approach and attempt at a unified federal strategy, the state of Washington criticized the path the recovery plans take toward implementation. A letter from Curt Smith to the federal caucus advised that federal-state partnerships are as important to the success of the plan as is federal agency agreement.

"…given that a 'no jeopardy' decision for the federal hydro system is highly dependent upon actions in each state's tributaries, we believe a corresponding effort between federal and state officials would have been appropriate" in the development of the draft, wrote Smitch, special natural resources adviser to Gov. Gary Locke.

Smitch's letter reiterated "the call made in the four governors' statement of July 25 -- that one federal official be appointed within the region to serve as our central point of contact…."

Smitch's comments on behalf of the state were sharply critical of what its sees as a BiOp "deferral of the federal agencies' ESA responsibilities" to the Northwest Power Planning Council and its Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife program. The Council program, funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, is cited in the federal documents as a potential source of funding for implementing prescribed off-site mitigation measures.

"We want to work directly with these agencies, and not through an intermediary vehicle that does not have this fundamental responsibility," Smitch wrote. The state is concerned, he said, that the interests of the state's affected citizens and landowners would not be well represented in the Council forum, which is strongly influenced by state, federal and tribal fish and wildlife entities. Nor does Washington believe that the Council's subbasin planning initiative is the "best opportunity" for multiple jurisdictions to reach agreement on recovery activities.

"To avoid jeopardy for the federal hydro system, agreements on off-site mitigation measures need to be made with each state, consistent with their respective strategies for salmon recovery, not with 'multiple jurisdiction,' " Smitch wrote. "The Council is a regional entity, not a state entity and a regional entity does not have the authority over water and land use decisions that are essential components of any effort to recover salmon in the Columbia Basin."

Detailed comments from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission were still in the works this week as members of lower Columbia treaty tribes continue to consult with NMFS.

It is safe to say, however, that the tribes disagree with the BiOp's basic premise -- that anticipated improvements beyond the hydrosystem itself are used in dismissing jeopardy.

The BiOp says, according to CRITFC policy analyst Jim Weber, that "the hydrosystem is essentially in jeopardy even under the RPA and that they need the states and tribes to bail them out" with off-site mitigation.

"It strikes me that there are some fundamental policy issues here," Weber said. "We're not convinced that it (the BiOp and strategy) is consistent with the needs of salmon or applicable law."

He said the proposed BiOp and strategy subscribe to a "weaker jeopardy standard" than is required by the ESA.

A coalition of sport fishing, commercial fishing and conservation groups said that it agrees with the NMFS overall assessment that the proposed hydrosystem operations jeopardize listed species.

"However, we are greatly concerned that the agency's willingness to follow the science does not carry over to its Reasonable and Prudent Alternative ("RPA") to this action," read comments from the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.

"Rather than following the only peer-reviewed analysis of what is necessary to protect listed Snake River salmon and steelhead from extinction -- namely dam removal -- NMFS apparently bowed to political pressures," read comments from the coalition, which said it represents 6 million members.

"The result is the tortured RPA included in this Draft BiOp. This RPA is neither reasonable nor prudent and it relies on actions far outside the action agencies' authority and control in an attempt to mitigate for the deleterious impacts of the federal hydro system on these species. The Draft BiOp's speculation about these measures fails to satisfy the ESA and more important, fails to provide for the biological needs of listed fish."

"The science requires a wholly different approach to this BiOp and its RPA. Specifically, the science clearly illustrates that removal of the four lower Snake River dams is a necessary part of a larger strategy needed to protect and recover all species in the Columbia and Snake River Basin. That is, dam removal alone may not be a "silver bullet." However, the science plainly indicates that it is a necessary part of an overall strategy."

"…Simply put, SOS urges the agency to call for dam removal of the four lower Snake River dams in the final BiOp and to put forth credible and additional habitat restoration and other efforts in the next five years that will assist Snake and Columbia River salmon in their recovery. The science requires nothing less."

The coalition criticized what it called a "wait and see" approach to recovery in the BiOp and strategy that says dam breaching will be reconsidered in 5 to 10 years if the outlined RPAs don't produce targeted survival improvement standards. SOS suggests NMFS call for breaching and begin planning implementation.

"This approach puts the emphasis and burden on the action agencies to prove that dam removal is no longer necessary to recover the species. At the same time, this approach gives the region time to prove that it can indeed take the difficult steps that will be necessary to recover these fish without dam removal. In the past, the region has been unwilling or unable to step up to the plate to make the difficult choices necessary to recover salmon in the Basin. This country passed an Endangered Species Act to ensure that these tough decisions would be made.

Link information:
Federal Caucus:

by Barry Espenson
States, Others Want Major Changes in Fed Recovery Plan
Columbia Basin Bulletin, October 6, 2000

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