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For the week of May 14 - 20, 2003


Judge voids federal salmon recovery plan

Advocates reflect on decision

"I think it’s a good thing to send everybody back to the table and find out what’s going to save the salmon. We’re 30 miles from one of the longest salmon migrations in the world, and I want them to keep coming back."

— Andy Munter, Idaho Rivers United board member

Express Staff Writer

A federal judge ruled last week that government programs to protect threatened and endangered salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin do not meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

Though Idaho’s environmental groups welcomed the news Wednesday, May 7, as an opportunity to put breaching of four lower Snake River dams back on the table, at least one local salmon advocate took the news with a grain of salt.

"I hope I’m wrong," said Sun Valley salmon advocate Stephen Pauley. "But I don’t expect we’ll get anything any better out of the W. Bush administration."

In a 26-page opinion, U.S. District Judge James A. Redden struck down the so-called biological opinion as violating federal law. Redden returned the matter to the National Marine Fisheries Service and told it to develop a plan that complies with the law.

Drafted in December 2000, the salmon recovery strategy focused on improving habitat and hatchery operations and limiting harvest without breaching the four dams on the lower Snake River as many environmentalists and biologists requested.

A coalition of 16 environmental and fishermen's groups sued in May 2001, claiming the biological opinion "capriciously and without any rational basis" concluded that the plan would not put the fish stocks in jeopardy of extinction.

"We have a real opportunity here and we want to be sure we get a plan adequate to protect the fish," said Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice, one of the plaintiffs.

Bill Sedivy of Idaho Rivers United, a member of the coalition, said the ruling can finally redirect the debate over salmon recovery to the real problem—four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington.

"We thought all along that the strategy behind the plan was a bit like trying to treat cancer with aspirin," Sedivy said. "Fortunately, the judge saw it that way, too.

"With this ridiculous plan out of the way, we now have a real opportunity to do something meaningful for Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead."

But Pauley pointed out that the 2000 biological opinion would have brought dam breaching back into the limelight if or when the government’s habitat and hatchery efforts failed. He added that the process leading up to the 2000 decision took more than five years.

If the ensuing process takes too long, the fish lose, he said.

But Blaine County resident and Idaho Rivers United board member Andy Munter said last week’s ruling should help redirect salmon recovery efforts sooner than would have occurred under the 2000 biological opinion.

"I think it’s a good thing to send everybody back to the table and find out what’s going to save the salmon," Munter said. "We’re 30 miles from one of the longest salmon migrations in the world, and I want them to keep coming back."

But Munter conceded that the same old debate could be rehashed yet again.

"Unfortunately, all the politicians say it’s impossible to breech the dams, and they say it’s impossible to let the salmon go extinct," he said. "There’s a chance to do something positive here, and it might be the same old politics, I’m afraid."

Susanne Connor, a steelhead fishing guide for Lost River Outfitters in Ketchum, said the decision is an opportunity to put dam breaching back on the table.

"The only way we’ll get our salmon and steelhead runs back is to do something about the dams," she said. "I think it’s awesome that they’re going to revisit that."

True argued that the government has a duty to ensure its actions will not put endangered stocks in jeopardy as opposed to providing the likelihood that they will not.

"It cannot be based on chance, on the hope that good things will happen in the future," he said.

The Endangered Species Act, he said, is "an institutional caution. We don't take chances with species listed as endangered by extinction."

Samuel Rauch III, arguing for the U.S. Justice Department, said the government is not required to ensure that the stocks will not go extinct, only to "not ... diminish the likelihood of recovery" from a threatened species listing.

The question he said, "is will the measures (for survival) be in place when the species needs them?" and noted that salmon runs in recent years have been in relatively good shape.

He said it is not a matter of whether the government is doing all it possibly can do. "The test is whether it diminishes the opportunity for recovery," he said, contending that the dam system as currently managed does not.

Plaintiffs argued that the biological opinion underestimates the risk of extinction and that conservation measures that do not affect the dams directly are speculative and voluntary.

"The biological opinion found a lot of things that might happen, that it hoped would happen, such as improved stream flows or restoration of habitat in estuaries," True said. "They feel that if all those things happen, they might be able to protect the fish."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.



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