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Agency slashes critical habitat for salmon

 

Salmon-lovers think there’s something fishy about a recent NOAA Fisheries’ decision to strip protection from four-fifths of the salmon’s designated critical habitat. The change eases the way for development along 134,200 miles of previously off-limits rivers and streams. The agency says that the habitat’s biological importance to salmon is outweighed by the potential economic gain for developers and landowners.

The Aug. 12 decision comes in response to a 2000 lawsuit by the National Association of Home Builders. The group claimed that during the Clinton era, NOAA Fisheries had failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act’s requirement that critical habitat designations include an economic analysis. Under the Bush administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lost a similar lawsuit; NOAA Fisheries decided to withdraw its habitat designations rather than fight in court.

Now, with less critical habitat to worry about, developers won’t have to jump through so many time-consuming, expensive "hoops," says Home Builders’ representative Ernie Platt.

But Jan Hasselman of the National Wildlife Federation argues that protecting salmon habitat is the best way to protect the region’s economy. Commercial and recreational fishing, he says, "can bring big money to small communities where there aren’t a lot of other options."

The revised critical habitat designations also leave out streams that salmon have used historically, but where they are not currently found. Agency spokesman Brian Gorman says that while it "makes sense biologically" to protect those streams, "it doesn’t comport with the law."

Environmentalists, encouraged by recent court decisions that overturn Bush administration salmon policies, are considering their legal options (HCN, 6/13/05: For salmon, a crucial moment of decision).