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Tribes Unhappy with Salmon Plan

by Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
The Spokesman Review, December 22, 2000

For now, federal agencies steer clear of dam-breaching

The federal plan for saving salmon was greeted Thursday with the threat of lawsuits from Northwest Indians.

Two years in the making, the plan outlines a series of steps for saving fish in the Columbia and its tributaries. The cost of improving habitat, hatcheries and dams is likely to top $500 million a year, at least $100 million more than the federal government and Bonneville Power Administration now spend on the work.

As expected, federal agencies did not recommend breaching four Snake River dams in Eastern Washington. Instead, the agencies say that breaching must be considered if reviews in three, five and eight years show that other steps are falling short.

Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission said his organization will recommend that its four member tribes "consider a number of legal options" because the salmon plan is not bold enough. The Nez Perce, Umatilla, Yakama and Nez Perce tribes have treaties guaranteeing their right to fish for salmon on the Columbia.

"Essentially, (the federal plan) is a license to kill," Hudson said. "At its very heart is the simple, self-serving goal of continuing business as usual on the river."

Federal officials hope to save dams and salmon, both.

"We believe that this plan has the best chance of recovering the fish," said Donna Darm, acting Northwest director of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "When we looked at what happens to these fish across their lifecycles ... dam breaching alone would not save them."

For instance, huge losses come during the first year of life, spent in mountain streams. More losses come while the young fish mill in the mouth of the Columbia River before beginning their adult life in the Pacific Ocean. Darm said eliminating dams would do nothing to end those losses.

However, 215 scientists last week sent a letter to President Clinton saying "the weight of scientific evidence clearly dictates" breaching. Most of the scientists who signed the letter work in the Northwest, either for state or tribal agencies, universities or independently.

The Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho criticized the federal plan Thursday for giving the dams a reprieve.

"Re-examining whether breaching is an option five or 10 years from now will be too late," tribal chairman Samuel Penney said in a written statement that made no threat of legal action.

In a major change from a draft released in July, the plan no longer calls for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin immediate studies of how to breach the dams. That provision had been opposed by many Western Republicans, most notably U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who lost a re-election bid in November.

"If the decision is made that we must go to dam breaching, we have plenty of time to do the studies," said Gen. Carl Strock, Northwest commander of the corps. "It just makes sense not to spend that effort at the moment."

The Columbia Basin salmon plan was written by nine federal agencies, including the corps, the fisheries service and the BPA, which uses money from Northwest electric ratepayers to finance most salmon recovery work.

One of the agencies, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, had not yet decided Thursday whether to sign off on the plan. The document was still under review, said Jim LeBret, the agency's Northwest chief for natural resource issues.

"We're very sensitive about the trust responsibility to treaty rights," LeBret said. "We have to make sure that they're accommodated."

Biologists believe the Columbia River system once supported 11 million to 16 million salmon and steelhead a year. Northwest tribes and states have set a goal of 5 million fish returning from the ocean to spawn in the rivers each year.

Currently, fewer than 1 million fish return from the ocean to spawn each year, and about 90 percent of them began life in hatcheries. Meanwhile, most runs of naturally spawning wild fish continue to dwindle.

The Endangered Species Act addresses only wild fish. The federal plan calls for using hatcheries to supplement wild populations.

Biologists consider hatcheries a threat to wild salmon because many were started with fish that didn't come from local waters. Each year, some of the progeny of those nonlocal fish spawn in rivers, where they interbreed with wild fish. That weakens the genetics of wild runs, biologists believe.

Among the hatchery reforms is the replacement of such nonlocal hatchery fish with local fish. In such cases, fish that started life in the hatchery, survived the ocean and made the return trip up the river are clubbed before they can spawn.

Along with dam supporters, Northwest tribes oppose that practice, believing that any salmon is critical to recovering the species. It's one more thing that could bring legal action, Hudson said.

"We're all for wild fish but we're not for squandering public resources," he said.

Dan Hansen, Staff Writer
Tribes Unhappy with Salmon Plan
Spokesman Review, December 22, 2000

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