September 19, 2009
The Obama administration has submitted an amended version of a Bush administration plan to rescue 13 endangered and threatened salmon species in the Pacific Northwest. The fish may be better off under this plan. But under the Endangered Species Act, better off is not enough. The act requires the government to make every effort to ensure a species’ long-term survival.
Judge James A. Redden of Federal District Court in Oregon will decide whether the plan meets that requirement. We do not believe that it does. Judge Redden has already rejected two federal plans for restoring salmon, one from the Clinton administration and one from the Bush administration. He was on the verge of ruling on a second Bush plan when the Obama administration asked for time to review it and strengthen it where necessary.
The administration has added several enhancements. It offers $100 million a year to improve salmon habitat; pledges new efforts to control invasive species and other predators; and promises to monitor the potential impacts of climate change, which could create serious problems for cold-water species like salmon.
Yet the plan does little to address the chief cause of fish mortality: the eight dams that the salmon must navigate on their way to and from the sea. Nor does it propose major changes in the way those dams are operated, like additional water flows over the dams to help the salmon move downstream.
It outlines a series of contingency plans that would be triggered when fish populations “decline significantly” — including, as a last resort, removing four dams on the Lower Snake River, an option the Bush administration rejected. But the fish, already endangered, would have to be in truly terrible shape before these plans could be triggered.
In his written instructions to the Obama administration, Judge Redden made it clear that he wanted a plan that put the salmon on a trajectory toward recovery — one with clear standards by which to measure success, not “triggers” that only measure failure. Judge Redden has been the salmon’s strongest defender, and he may be the salmon’s last hope. He should send this plan back to Washington and insist on something better.