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ESA Leaves Farmers and Wildlife High and Dry

by Rick Keller
Idaho Farm Bureau News, September, 2001

What happened in Klamath Falls, Oregon this spring could happen to any community in Idaho. The following information on the Klamath crisis comes from an article written by Dave Dillion of the Oregon Farm Bureau. May 7, 2001, in Klamath Falls was a perfect day to get a lot done on the farm along this 200,000 acre stretch along the Oregon-California border. But 1,400 farm families were not working the land that day. All the sun and good soil in the world cannot raise a crop without water, and the federal government has shut off water to over 90 percent of project irrigators. The very dam that many of these farmers and their parents and grandparents paid to build and maintain is now being used to hold their water away from them.

From its 1905 start, the federal government used the Klamath Project to lure farmers from around the country to settle there with promises of abundant, unending water. Many World War I and II veterans settled here based on this promise. The region produces well over $100 million in agriculture products annually and is the cornerstone of the community's economy.

Wildlife arguably have benefited more than people have from the project. Irrigation water is willingly shared with the nearby wildlife refuges. Farmers plant grain crops on the refuge for the sole use of wildlife. The result is a rich environment that welcomes over 2.25 million migrating waterfowl each autumn - the largest concentration of these birds in North America. The waterfowl need an estimated 70 million pounds of grain each year. Under the best circumstances, nature can provide less than half of that. This migration is one reason the basin is also home to the largest winter concentration of bald eagles in the continental U.S. - over 1,100 pairs.

One might ask why the federal government would pull the plug on a century of success and harmony between man and nature. Agriculture and the refuges together utilize only 30 percent of the lake's usable water. That accounts for a tiny fraction of the whole Klamath River system. This particular action boils down to how two federal agencies apply the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in their jurisdiction over tow endangered species of sucker fish and one threatened species of coho salmon.

The suckers live above the dam and have a U.S. Fish and Wildlife service biological opinion mandating a minimum lake level that exceeds what nature could have provided before the dam was built. The coho salmon live well downstream of the project and have a National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) biological opinion mandating minimum flow rate for the river system. These opinions are mutually exclusive and are disputed by independent scientists.

In the case of the sucker, the government itself holds the smoking gun. After a poisoning campaign in the 1960s, it's a wonder there are any suckers left. At that time, the state of Oregon embarked on an eradication campaign to poison several lakes to rid them of the sucker, then considered a pest. Even poisoning could not eliminate the sucker, yet the government now claims the difference of a few feet in lake elevation could spell doom for the sucker.

In the case of the coho, NMFS has allowed years of over-harvest. The government refuses to address predation by marine mammals. Now, NMFS has created its own scheme to invoke the ESA called "evolutionary significant units (ESU)." ESU is not part of the Act, and has never been approved by Congress or reviewed by independent scientists.

Using ESU logic, the federal government has gerrymandered salmon populations in the West, specifically to list coho. Imagine two coho swimming down the Rouge River. At the mouth, one turns north while the other turns south. Other than what direction they take in the ocean, the fish are the same. NMFS considers one member of one ESU while it considers the other a member of a separate ESU.

When it assessed the health of Atlantic salmon, NMFS did not apply ESUs. Rather, it said, "on the whole, salmon are doing OK in the Atlantic" and didn't list them threatened. Yet on the whole, Pacific salmon are in much better shape than their Eastern cousins.

NMFS is also hurting salmon recovery through its Aryan fish policy. This policy treats "wild" salmon a threatened fish while at the same time clubbing to death tens of thousands of coho salmon that are genetically identical to the wild fish. Instead of helping recovery of stocks, these fish become cat food. The only way to tell them apart is that hatchery personnel clip the fins of young hatchery fish.

Successful programs across the nation have used bred-in-captivity programs to recover species. The whooping crane, California condor, and peregrine falcon all would likely be extinct today if not for these breeding programs. The federal government uses "anything to help the species survive" logic for the birds and wolves, while all it offers hatchery fish is a baseball bat and an early grave.

With another drought year predicted, Klamath farmers expected a reduction in their water allotment. Through two droughts in the 1990s, farmers received a fraction of their normal water, but found a way to survive. No sucker fish kills were reported and coho returns from those years were among the highest ever recorded. The farmers attended the spring water meeting and were told there would be zero water. It was a huge shock.

The economic toll could reach $500 million. Property that is worth thousands of dollars an acre under irrigation is worth only a few hundred dry. Many of the veterans lured by the promises of water are now retired and depend on rental income from farmland for their survival. Without crops, that rental income will not come. Farm family sons and daughters already are leaving the farm to search for jobs, and thousands of Klamath farm employees' futures are threatened. Community businesses are closed and closing.

This talk of broken promises, disputed science, and a shattered community can easily be repeated in any other community in the nation. A change in the Endangered Species Act will be too late to help these farmers this year, but is necessary to avoid similar debacles in the future.

What can you do? Contact George Bush and let him know the federal government needs to help the Klamath Basin survive:

George W. Bush
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Washington, D.C. 20500
Fax: 202-456-2461
Telephone: 202-456-1414

Rick Keller, IFBF Executive Vice President
ESA Leaves Farmers and Wildlife High and Dry
Idaho Farm Bureau News - page 2, September, 2001

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