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Stelle's Tenure gets both Kudos and Complaints

by Staff
Columbia Basin Bulletin - September 15, 2000

The man bowing out this week as the federal government's point man on Pacific Northwest salmon recovery was showered with both kudos and complaints from those in the region who have watched his agency's handling of complicated scientific and political issues.

Will Stelle, for six years Northwest regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, leaves public service this week to join a prominent Seattle law firm. One of his focuses there will be Endangered Species Act protections for salmon and steelhead -- issues that have consumed him and his agency throughout his tenure.

While the charges of NMFS, a Department of Commerce agency, are many, its duty to list imperiled salmon and steelhead populations have grabbed the most headlines. Its proposals to protect and restore those populations have drawn much controversy.

"He truly was given the impossible, thankless task and most of the time he carried out that task with poise," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. Since 1991, 24 salmon and steelhead runs in the Northwest and northern California have been listed under the Endangered Species Act, including 12 in the Columbia Basin. Nine were added last year.

The breaching of four Lower Snake River dams to ease passage for listed stocks has been one of the region's biggest political footballs. Industrial, agriculture and other entities and, for the most part, politicians, oppose to the idea, but many tribes, fishing and conservation groups and most scientists, Hamilton says, agree it is the single biggest step that could be taken to benefit those declining runs.

A recently released draft NMFS hydrosystem biological opinion and a federal caucus draft recovery strategy set dam breaching on the back burner for now. The two documents set out a strategy to improve salmon survivals through a mix of hydrosystem passage improvements and "off-site" improvements in hatchery and harvest management and habitat. If those measures fail to make the desired survival improvements, breaching would be reconsidered, the draft documents say.

Hamilton commended the proposed off-site mitigation measures as needed elements of a recovery plan but called them "decadal approaches" to recovery that will take years to produce benefits and be judged as to their effectiveness. She faulted NMFS' "framing of the science for decision making" on the breaching issue, ignoring the advice of a large faction of the region's scientific community.

"NMFS made a political decision and it's supposed to be a science agency," Hamilton said.

The Columbia River Alliance's Bruce Lovelin admitted that Stelle had tough job but said that during his tenure the NMFS has "continued to fumble the ball."

The CRA does not consider dam breaching -- and the resulting loss of hydro generation, navigation, irrigation and other benefits -- an option. But it does consider salmon recovery possible by involving landowners and river users with a "bottom up" approach rather than in a federally dominated effort that restricts land and water uses.

"Right now NMFS is kind of a four-letter word out in the hinterland and that's where they need the support," Lovelin said. He said he felt Stelle was well intentioned but could have focused more on being a consensus builder.

"He didn't spend enough time on Horizon Airlines (a Northwest regional carrier)" trying to bring the region's varied interests together, Lovelin said. Successful implementation, and recovery, would only come through a regionally accepted salmon recovery plan, he said.

He wondered if the draft BiOp and recovery strategy are a "dead on arrival plan."

Columbia River treaty tribes, too have been consistently critical of NMFS recovery battle plan, particularly as relates to hatchery operations and harvest.

The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission's John Platt called Stelle "a brilliant guy" but one that inherited an agency with too many inner conflicts. Initially established to promote commercial fisheries, the agency now is also charged with reviving listed species.

"My first comment to him was that you've got yourself a handful," said Platt, who knew Stelle prior to his appointment.

The tribes have frequently protested what they say is overzealous NMFS genetic policies that actually hamper recovery.

"Now that agency is in the process of creating tiny populations of disconnected populations in the upper river," Platt said of listed NMFS "evolutionarily significant units" and subpopulations.

CRITFC and the Colville Tribes have this summer been critical of a NMFS mandate to phase out so-called Carson stock in a federal hatchery program aimed at rebuilding listed spring chinook in Washington's Methow Valley. NMFS says a Methow "composite stock, still in relatively short supply, is better adapted genetically to survive in that river system. The tribes insist that the Carson stock, used for decades in hatcheries there, would fare as well and have urged that returning Carson hatchery fish be allowed to spawn naturally as part of the rebuilding effort.

Platt said that is an example of NMFS policy that serves to isolate listed populations and minimize their chance of recovering.

"They're not working toward abundance," Platt said.

"The tribes know that if they go the course that they are going there's going to be less and less fish in their fisheries," Platt said.

The Native Fish Society's Bill Bakke gave Stelle, and the agency, a balanced scorecard.

"I think he's done a pretty good job in some respects and lousy in others," Bakke said. The agency was relatively effective in processing listing petitions for populations in need of protection, with some exceptions.

"Failure to list lower river coho has been a sore point with me," said Bakke, whose organization recently launched a new coho petition. He also said that NMFS has done well to pressure dam operators to make facilities more fish friendly.

Passage improvements, combined with improved ocean conditions, have bode well for hatchery returns though "it's going to take wild fish longer to rebuild," Bakke said.

In contrast to Lovelin, Bakke criticized the agency for not exerting enough of the federal authority it possesses, saying NMFS "has pawned off the responsibility to other parties." In its 4(d) habitat rules released this summer the agency offers "take" (ESA rules prohibiting harming or killing listed salmon) exemptions to some programs, such Washington's forestry practices rules, and solicits other such plans from municipalities, other local entities and states for approval.

Making that initiative troublesome is the fact that NMFS has not provided targets -- in terms of habitat conditions, fish numbers and biological diversity -- at which those entities can take aim.

"They're developing plans in the dark," Bakke said. He did say NMFS efforts to create hatchery genetic management plans and fishery management plans a positive step toward changing the status quo -- simply mass-producing fish for harvest without acknowledging impacts to native stocks.

Standards are needed that "hold agencies accountable for protection of wild native fish and recovery of fish as they're exposed to these harvest and hatchery programs," Bakke said.

"We would never move in that direction if it weren't for the Endangered Species Act," Bakke said.

He also said the agency is thwarted by its own, sometimes conflicting, mandates -- promoting commercial harvest and protecting listed species.

"There are a lot of good people inside those agencies trying to get the job done," Bakke said. "I really grate at the politics."

Washington's senior U.S. senator, Slade Gorton, stepped back a bit from the politics this week during what is likely to be Stelle's final appearance before Congress as NMFS Northwest regional chief.

Gorton, a Republican, told Stelle at a Senate hearing on Tuesday that he had strong admiration for him although they disagreed significantly on many issues. During that same session the senator had taken the NMFS-federal caucus recovery plan to task, saying it threatened region's economy without offering proof of significant fish benefits. Gorton has also been harshly critical of NMFS 4(d) rule and remains a staunch foe of dam breaching.

Gorton said he understood Stelle's desire to enter the private sector and have greater economic security for his family.

Gorton drew a laugh from Stelle by suggesting that being a member of "a broadly based law firm" will broaden his point of view.

"I wish you every good fortune. You have certainly served your own causes with skill and eloquence," he said.

"Thank you, senator. That's a generous statement," Stelle replied.

Tim Stearns says Stelle's exit may have pluses and minuses. It contributes to the lack of federal continuity in what has been a drawn out process for developing a bonafide salmon recovery plan, said the director of the National Wildlife Federation's Northwestern Natural Resource Center. The BiOp and federal strategy are, at this point, merely outlines that Stelle helped develop but will not be around to flesh out in terms of specific actions and funding for implementation.

Stearns said that he hopes Stelle's decision will reinvigorate the process.

"This really forces the CEQ and (the Department of) Commerce and the White House to take more interest and control," Stearns said. While advances have been made in getting the nine different federal agencies involved together on a recovery plan, work remains to be done.

"You've got to have someone to play the adult in this game," Stearns said. Landowners and other stakeholders affected by federal recovery decisions are willing to help, but they need an understandable federal plan, he said.

Stelle's Tenure gets both Kudos and Complaints
Columbia Basin Bulletin, September 15, 2000

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