Thursday, November 17, 2011

Feds "Staying the Course" Towards Extinction on Snake River Salmon

A map from the Oregonian depicting the status of listed Columbia Salmon

Yesterday the federal government responded to a request for settlement by plantifs in the lawsuit against the Columbia River Biological Opinion (BiOp). Opponents of the Columbia River BiOp which include the Nez Perce Tribe, the State of Oregon, and a broad coalition of conservation and fishing groups have called on the Federal Government to convene discussions with stakeholders to craft a lasting solution for the Snake River and it's four lower dams. In their response the Federal Government indicated that they are uninterested in such a process and that instead they plan to "stay the course" with the controversial plan to recover Snake and Columbia salmon.

This begs the question though, what kind of future are we staying the course towards? Salmon populations in the Snake and Columbia have been buoyed by favorable ocean conditions which are cyclical in nature. Every year the federal government and the BPA spend millions of dollars on salmon recovery projects with questionable benefit, seeking to meet their legal obligations under the ESA and protect the status quo. This despite the fact that leading researchers at the American Fisheries Society, the worlds largest organization of fisheries professionals have stated unequivocally that the only way to ensure recovery of ESA listed salmon and steelhead in the Snake over the long term is to remove the four Lower Snake Dams.

Even under the most optimistic scenarios salmon and steelhead in the Snake and Columbia will not even reach "recovery" goals laid out by NOAA, but instead will continue to fluctuate around the same levels of abundance we've seen over the past decade. Even with massive investments by the BPA the federal government we're reaching the point of declining returns. Passage can only be improved so much at each of the 8 dams fish must navigate migrating from the pristine headwaters of the Snake, and at the end of the day the undeniable fact is that dams have turned a mighty river into several hundred miles of stagnating, predator infested lakes.

Looming on the horizon is the true elephant in the room, climate change. Interior basins of the Columbia and Snake may be some of the hardest hit by a warming climate, yet bureaucrats at NMFS refuse to even entertain the notion of proactively removing four antiquated dams that never should have been built in the first place. The federal government is living on borrowed time, begging a federal judge to let them "stay the course" to extinction. So as we approach the twenty years mark since the first illegal BiOp, it's back to court for another round in the never ending saga.

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