Bush switch on salmon protection stirs outcry - Proposal includes hatchery fish in count for listing - Salmon stocks may be taken off endangered species list
WASHINGTON -- Sweeping changes in how salmon and their habitat are protected could result from a Bush administration proposal that would gauge the health of Northwest salmon by counting, for the first time, hundreds of millions of hatchery fish along with those born in the wild.
Critics immediately denounced the plan for ignoring scientific realities and potentially stripping away crucial protections now granted under the Endangered Species Act.
Carried out to its fullest, fishery experts said, it could result in some salmon stocks' being taken off the endangered species list after years and billions of dollars spent to restore dwindling populations.
Removing the fish from the list would weaken -- or even remove -- land-use restrictions designed to protect habitat, representing a boon to timber, mining, agriculture and construction interests that have been barred from working on the protected land.
"I feel like the people of the Northwest woke up to a bombshell this morning," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in response to reports, first published in The Washington Post and The (Portland) Oregonian, that hatchery salmon would be used to determine the overall salmon population.
The policy, if adopted, would represent a fundamental shift. For years, federal fishery experts have pegged the health of chinook, coho and steelhead to the number of fish born and living only in the wild. Scientists generally agree that wild fish have the greatest biological diversity and are the most accurate measure of the salmon's present and future condition.
Critics fear that the Bush administration will reject the prevailing science for a policy that appears to benefit its political interests, in this case timber, mining, agriculture and commercial development.
"I'm very concerned we're moving away from science, which is what our policy has been based on, for some political judgment or political expediency," Cantwell told Conrad Lautenbacher, the Commerce Department undersecretary responsible for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at a hearing yesterday.
"I assure you there is no political judgment or political expediency," said Lautenbacher, who appeared before the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries and Coast Guard.
Fears about the validity of the science underlying a new policy are rooted in part on NOAA's decision to reject the comments of six leading salmon experts who said that using hatchery salmon is misguided, according to an account in The Washington Post.
Democrats Cantwell, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Norm Dicks will send a letter today to Commerce Secretary Donald Evans asking for "a copy of the draft policy, any relevant scientific analysis including recommendations of salmon ecology scientists, and an explanation as to how the administration believes this policy meets the legal requirements of the ESA (Endangered Species Act).
"In addition, we would like an explanation of how this shift may affect future listings or delisting in the Pacific Northwest, and how it will alter the federal commitment to recovering salmon runs."
A copy of the letter was obtained by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
If hatchery-raised fish are added to the analysis, fishery biologists said, the salmon population will increase dramatically, which could lead to the fish being removed from the Endangered Species Act.
"It gives them a hole in the ESA large enough to drive a hatchery truck through. That's what it does. It gives them the flexibility to say we have enough (fish) that we can remove them from the list," said Jeff Curtis, Western conservation director for Trout Unlimited.
Curtis and other fishery experts also worry about the standards outlining which hatchery fish can be included in the count. Under the proposed wording, a hatchery fish can be included as long as it is "genetically no more than moderately divergent from a natural population."
That definition is so "elastic," Curtis said, that "you could put humans and chimpanzees together" because they share common genes.
There are also sheer numbers. Hatcheries serving Puget Sound dumped more than 130 million fish into the system last year while those serving the Columbia River Basin released 170 million fish.
Adapting to the new approach could be costly and confusing, Cantwell said, adding that it might not work.
"My concern is that if this new policy deviates from the science and the law, our region would be plunged into uncertainty and conflict through protracted litigation," she said.
The policy, which is still in draft form, would have an early impact. The federal government is scheduled to decide this summer whether to remove 15 salmon stocks from the endangered list.
The change in policy was prompted by a ruling in 2001 by a federal judge in Oregon who concluded that the government erred by not including hatchery fish when it decided to place coastal coho salmon on the protected list.
"A lot of conservation policy has dealt with hatchery fish, but this draft policy is different," said Patti Goldman of Earthjustice. "This is the first time they have said they'll count hatchery fish when deciding whether to list."
Indian tribes welcomed the policy change, so long as it is used properly as a tool to improve hatchery stock and management.
"This shift causes us to be cautiously optimistic that we may be able to get some thoughtful use of hatchery fish for restoration," said Charles Hudson of the Columbia River Inter-tribal Fish Commission.
"In no way do we see this as a fast track way out of the Endangered Species Act listing."
The act requires that the fundamental causes of salmon decline be addressed and mitigated, and fishery managers recognize that simply flooding the rivers with hatchery fish is not a solution, he said.
But he said tribes have been concerned about limits on hatchery salmon that are not applied to other wildlife conservation programs.
"If you talk about other endangered stock -- antelope, condor, for example -- they've long used trapping, transporting and artificial reproduction to restore them," Hudson said. "For some strange reason salmon have not been allowed that flexibility."
The decision will carry heavy, and financially significant, ramifications no matter which way it goes. If some or all of the endangered designations are lifted, it will open broad stretches of public and private land to logging, mining, commercial development and agriculture that have been off limits in the name of saving salmon.
The Bonneville Power Administration, for example, could pour more water through its hydroelectric dams, increasing its profits and potentially lowering rates for consumers. It would also pay less each year to restore salmon.
BPA spokesman Mike Hansen said the giant utility would welcome the move toward counting hatchery-raised salmon if it is supported by science. "It will be good to get clarity on this issue so we can prioritize our actions," he said.
"If there are some hatchery fish that can be counted as listed fish and that helps the situation ... it will help move salmon recovery along further. We think that is a good thing. But we want to do only what is appropriate."
Salmon protection costs the BPA between $500 million and $600 million a year in such things as habitat restoration and revenue that is "foregone" when it must limit water flow through its dams to maintain favorable conditions for salmon.
John Mechem, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, declined to specifically address the proposal.
But in general, he said, the Endangered Species Act "needs to be modernized. It has several problems. It hasn't been particularly effective in recovering endangered species. The other problem is the way ESA is being abused in the courts" by groups seeking more protections.
The new policy is expected to be published in the Federal Register in June, and after a period of public comment could become final by fall. The only way to contest it would be in the courts.
P-I Washington correspondent Charles Pope can be reached at 202-263-6461
or email@example.com This report includes information from
The Associated Press.
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