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West Coast Salmon Likely to Remain Protected

by Craig Welch & Hal Bernton
Seattle Times - May 15, 2004

The Bush administration yesterday infuriated Northwest developers and farmers by telling Congress it expects to keep Endangered Species Act protections for 25 of 26 troubled runs of West Coast salmon.

Environmentalists welcomed the news, but some said the administration acted only because of a backlash over its hatchery proposals.

To stem what it called "erroneous accounts" of its plan to deal with the impact of hatchery-produced fish on the region's once-legendary wild salmon runs, Commerce Undersecretary Conrad Lautenbacher Jr. wrote to Congress that the central tenet of hatchery policy will remain "conservation of naturally-spawning salmon and the ecosystems upon which they depend."

The move surprised environmentalists and business interests alike.

Just two weeks ago, based on leaked documents showing that federal agencies planned to count millions of hatchery fish alongside wild fish in assessing the health of salmon and steelhead runs, both sides assumed that the Bush administration was laying the groundwork to remove endangered-species protections.

Despite changes in fish-counting methods in some places, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plans at the end of the month to propose leaving most of the West Coast runs protected under the Endangered Species Act, Lautenbacher said.

Among those that will remain protected are several runs in Washington: Puget Sound chinook; Snake River sockeye, chinook and steelhead, and Columbia River chinook, chum and steelhead.

The administration is still considering whether to remove protections from one Columbia River steelhead run.

"NOAA's decisions are driven by science," Lautenbacher said. "Simply put, some well-managed conservation hatcheries are fostering recovery of species, some hatcheries are having little or no effect, and some potentially hinder recovery."

Yesterday's announcement "is absolutely ridiculous," said Timothy Harris, an attorney with the Building Industry Association of Washington, which had sued NOAA Fisheries to force it to scale back salmon protections.

"Up and down the West Coast there are millions of chinook, chum, sockeye and coho. What other species that number in the millions even come close to meriting listing under the ESA?"

The controversy dates to 2001, when U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan ruled that the government had wrongly excluded hatchery fish from its analysis when determining that Oregon coastal coho needed federal protection.

Since decisions on 26 other dwindling salmon runs from Southern California to Bellingham were made using the same process, conservative and business groups sued NOAA, arguing that all its listings were illegal.

NOAA declined to appeal, and eventually agreed to reassess the status of all listed salmon runs and take a new look at how it counts hatchery fish.

Bob Lohn, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries in Seattle, said the administration decided to release the results yesterday because it wanted to make two points.

"First, NOAA has a strong commitment to habitat restoration, and to preserving and restoring naturally spawning fish runs, and nothing in our discussions was intended to distract from that," he said. "Second, we wanted to make clear that in our status reviews, we were not making a decision that would cause massive delistings of salmon."

Some environmentalists argued that the administration reversed its intentions only after a backlash from scientists and members of Congress over its hatchery proposals.

Lohn said that wasn't true.

"This is what happens when the public spotlight is put on an issue of such importance to people in our region," said Kristen Boyles, an environmental attorney with Earthjustice. "When the hatchery policy was leaked, people here responded immediately and passionately for wild fish and clear, unpolluted rivers."

Some business groups accused Lohn and the administration of allowing NOAA bureaucrats to take salmon policy out of the hands of White House officials.

Just last week, Tom McCabe, vice president of the building-industry association, slammed Lohn in a letter also sent to Republicans in Congress, as a "disappointment to thousands of Washington citizens farmers, ranchers, builders, small businessmen, property owners who expected the Bush administration to delist salmon."

"You have pandered to the radical environmentalists who are no friends of the Bush administration, and never will be, no matter what you do."

McCabe and Russ Brooks, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, both promised to take the administration back to court to remove salmon protections.

Brooks, whose group filed the initial suit on Oregon coho, argued the administration's actions yesterday were based on "wrongheaded misinterpretation" of the law.

Boyles, of Earthjustice, called Brooks' argument nonsense.

"What would be illegal would be to delist wild salmon populations that need protection," she said.

Lohn said the assessment of salmon will continue to consider four factors: their abundance, their ability to reproduce and sustain themselves, their genetic diversity and their distribution.

In other words, "if we're not getting back two natural fish for every two that spawn, then a hatchery won't solve that problem," he said.

Lohn said the administration is still considering lifting protections on Columbia River steelhead, which return to spawn in tributary rivers above Bonneville Dam.

These include the Yakima, Walla Walla and Klickitat rivers in Washington, and the Deschutes, John Day and Umatilla in Oregon.

The administration will make its decision on the Columbia River steelhead by month's end.

Craig Welch & Hal Bernton
West Coast Salmon Likely to Remain Protected
Seattle Times, May 15, 2004

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