A bullet for the bearer of bad news

Biologists support salmon protection, and Congress yanks their funding

  • A chinook salmon and a school of shad pass through the viewing room at McNary Lock and Dam on the Columbia River. As of mid-November, only 43,271 chinook salmon had passed the eight dams on the Columbia and lower Snake rivers - down from 194,541 at the same time in 2001.

    Jeff T. Green, Getty Images
 

"When they don’t like the message, they are going to kill the messenger," Michele DeHart said in November.

By "they," she meant the industrial and agricultural interests along the Snake and Columbia rivers, and their powerful friends in Congress; "the messenger" is herself and the federal agency she manages.

DeHart runs the Fish Passage Center in Portland, a team of fisheries scientists who analyze the impacts of dams on salmon for the Northwest’s state fish and wildlife agencies and Indian tribes. The center’s findings have often challenged the views presented by federal and hydro industry scientists.

Last summer, at the request of Indian tribes, DeHart wrote an analysis supporting U.S. District Judge James Redden’s order that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spill water over dams to help migrating salmon (HCN, 6/13/05: For salmon, a crucial moment of decision). The spills cost the Bonneville Power Administration some $74 million in lost power generation.

In November, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, R, with the acquiescence of Northwestern Democrats, cut off the center’s funding. That means that when funding runs out in the coming months, DeHart and her scientists are most likely done.

"She took a position that supported one side of the argument, and that’s advocacy," says Mike Tracy, a Craig spokesman.

Craig’s legislation, attached to a budget bill, allows Bonneville Power to fund other agencies to do the analysis currently done by the Fish Passage Center. Nonetheless, the center’s demise shows that salmon fishermen, environmental groups and Indian tribes have far less political traction than their opponents.

Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray helped Craig get the legislation passed. The rest of the Northwest's delegation — three Democrats and three Republicans — let it happen. "The states of Oregon and Washington should have come to the aid of the Fish Passage Center but they didn’t, even though they’re Democrats," says Bert Bowler, a fisheries biologist who used to work for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and is now with the nonprofit Idaho Rivers United.

Fisheries scientists say the only way to save endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead may be to breach four dams on the Snake River. In the past, the states have challenged federal assertions that transporting salmon around dams, and building systems that allow fish to bypass the structures, can offset the impacts. But the states’ resistance has crumbled under political pressure, says Bowler: "(The states) are dysfunctional."

At the same time, a recent shift in ocean currents has ended, at least for now, the optimal conditions that had increased salmon productivity in the Columbia dramatically since 1997. The growing scientific evidence that global warming threatens Northwestern salmon only compounds the legal and political uncertainty.

For now, salmon advocates’ hopes lie with Judge Redden, who has given federal dam operators and fish managers until May to come up with a new plan for operating the federal hydropower system so it doesn’t drive the Columbia’s salmon into extinction. The Portland judge ruled last May that the Bush administration erred when it said that eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers do not jeopardize endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead. He also rejected the administration’s view that the Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to keep salmon numbers stable, but not recover them.

The federal government’s appeal of the decision is expected to go all the way to the Supreme Court, where the outcome is far from certain: In the past, new Chief Justice John Roberts has challenged the scope of the Endangered Species Act (HCN, 10/31/05: In Bush's Supreme Court, who's on first?).

Craig’s ability to get Congress to cut the center’s funding has salmon advocates wondering if he’ll now press for a recovery plan that falls short of what scientists say is necessary. Such a bill — akin to legislation advanced by Sen. Mark Hatfield, R-Ore., in the wake of a similar judicial decision on the spotted owl in the late 1980s — would override the Endangered Species Act.

Nobody is talking publicly right now about such a strategy. But federal officials will return to Redden’s court Dec. 15 to plead for a more lenient dam-management plan for 2006. Their plan would spill far less water and cost Northwest ratepayers 10 times less than the operations plan proposed by salmon advocates.

If Redden turns them down, the battlefield could move from the courtroom to Congress.

The writer is the author of Scorched Earth: How the Fires in Yellowstone Changed America.

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