Oregon gets shot at saving salmon

  • Commercially harvested coho salmon

    Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

In a move that speaks loudly of the Clinton administration's approach to resolving endangered species conflicts, the National Marine Fisheries Service will give federal protection to one population of wild coastal salmon but not another.

Under a court-imposed deadline, the agency decided April 25 to list the southern population of coho - which spawn in streams and rivers from Oregon's Cape Blanco through northern California - under the Endangered Species Act. It did not list the population that inhabits the territory between Cape Blanco and the Washington border, despite dwindling numbers of fish.

The reason for the split decision, according to federal officials, is a matter of commitment: The state of Oregon has developed its own recovery plan for salmon, while California has not.

"Our goal is to send a wake-up call to California that says, 'Look at what Oregon has done,' " an administration official told the Los Angeles Times.

What Oregon has done is craft a $30 million, 2,800-page recovery plan that addresses the variety of threats to the coho, including overharvesting in the oceans, competition from hatchery-bred fish and the destruction of the spawning habitat along streams and rivers. The so-called "Oregon Approach" was put together by the governor's office and a variety of local, state and federal interests and relies heavily on the voluntary efforts of private landowners (HCN, 3/17/97).

"This is a victory for the governor, but, more importantly, it's a victory for the Endangered Species Act," says Paula Burgess, natural resource specialist for Gov. John Kitzhaber, D. "It shows we can do what's best for the fish."

Critics question whether the Oregon plan can recover the coho, which have dropped from more than a million at the turn of the century to less than 100,000 today.

"We support the governor's plan, but a listing would provide some clear motivation to the bureaucracies and industries which must make it work," says Tryg Sletteland, executive director of the Pacific Rivers Council. Environmentalists have already announced that they will ask the courts to force a listing for the coho later this summer.

Recent court decisions give them some basis for hope. A federal judge in Texas ruled that an agreement between the city of Austin and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Barton Springs salamander was inadequate and could not forestall a listing. And in New Mexico, a federal judge recently told the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the jaguar despite a conservation plan the agency was helping the state write (HCN, 3/17/97).

Supporters of the Oregon plan claim that it is far more than a political document designed to avoid a listing. For one, it builds on the work the state is already doing to protect salmon habitat, says Burgess. Sixty-five state-sponsored "watershed councils," which have been up and running since 1993, will provide the infrastructure to carry out many of the new projects, she says.

There will also be plenty of monitoring, Burgess says. An independent science team, created by statute, will closely watch the plan's implementation and present a yearly report card.

The agreement requires a re-evaluation of Oregon's Forest Practices Act, which governs the cutting of trees on private and state lands. Federal and state scientists will decide whether coho recovery requires new protections, including larger logging-free "riparian buffers' along streams and rivers and limitations on clear-cutting in slide-prone areas. New rules or laws to change the act must be in place by June of 1999.

That's too long to wait, says environmentalist Sletteland. "The Fisheries Service is already two years late in making a listing decision and now it wants to give the timber industry another two years. And, of course, the changes to the law won't be adequate."

But Geoff Pampush of Oregon Trout says a federal listing could have dampened the enthusiasm of the timber industry and everyone who put the Oregon plan together, including farmers, the Republican-dominated legislature, which has committed $15 million to the project over the next two years, and the governor, who, as an avid fisherman, "feels this issue in his heart," he says.

"The Fisheries Service hasn't walked away from the coho," Pampush says. "It has just said, "we're going to give these guys a chance." But the hammer of the Endangered Species Act stays in the air."

* Paul Larmer, HCN senior editor

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