March 9, 2009
blog by Rocky Barker
Neither side in the salmon-dam lawsuit could walk away Friday confident that they were going to eventually get their way from U.S. District Judge James Redden Friday in Portland.
Redden told federal, tribal and environmental lawyers that it's a close call whether the latest federal biological opinion on Columbia and Snake River dams meets the Endangered Species Act. And he said at the end of the day if he makes a final ruling he will make it on the law.
Lawyers for environmentalists, salmon fishermen and salmon businesses, along with lawyers for the Nez Perce Tribe and the Spokane tribe made a strong case that the federal government was not using the best available science to determine how endangered all 13 stocks of salmon and steelhead in the region are. But the federal government had most of the region's tribes on its side of the court in a powerful coalition that make its case it will do what it says it will.
The key issue is whether the dams jeopardize the existence of the fish with the plan in place that feds, Idaho, Montana, Washington and most of the region’s tribes support. The judge clearly would like the two sides to cut a deal. But that isn’t going to be easy.
If the issue was getting to a plan that meets the Endangered Species Act that would be tough enough. But what salmon advocates want is a plan that will not only keep salmon from going extinct but also will unlock the production potential of the Snake River.
Only Idaho and eastern Oregon have the quality habitat to produce large harvestable runs into the future without hatcheries. That’s as much of the logic of removing the four lower Snake dams on the Snake in Washington as keeping the fish from going extinct. The long term future of all five of the Snake salmon and steelhead that are endangered may depend on the dams but in the short term it may be possible to keep them from winking out.
Other issues remain important. The future wild B run steelhead, the big ones that live mostly in the Clearwater, may be more threatened right now by incidental harvest by tribal commercial fishermen. Other dams like the Hells Canyon complex are issues.
Hatcheries have been the major bane of the Upper Columbia steelhead. These fish have all but lost the resilience to survive in the wild because of spending too many generations in hatcheries.
What role will hatcheries play in the long run? Then there is the biggest issue: climate change.
Ultimately the Pacific Northwest is going to have to decide what it wants and get Congress and a president to sign off. Redden has set the table for these regional discussions to begin.
The ball is now in the court of the Obama administration, which appeared all but absent from the hearing Friday. The same government lawyers argued the federal side. The National Marine Fisheries Service still doesn’t have its new director, Jane Lubchenco, in place let alone a regional director.
But the ball also is in the court of the Congress and the region. What will be the forum for the long term talks that will be necessary to resolve this issue? How will the interests of the many local communities affected be protected?
We are on the verge of a new era in the salmon and dam saga. The first thing we need is leadership.