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Friday, January 4, 2013

Endangered Species Act Issues Regarding Columbia Basin Salmon and Steelhead

Kristina Alexander
Legislative Attorney

Eugene H. Buck
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy

Salmon and steelhead populations in the Columbia Basin have declined since commercial fishing began in the late 1800s, and declined further since the construction and operation of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) in the mid-1900s. In 1991, the Snake River sockeye became the first Pacific salmon stock determined to be endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Since then, FCRPS operations have to be reviewed for their impact on ESA listed species. This means that federal operators of the FCRPS—the Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), and the Army Corps of Engineers (Corps)—are required to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) of the Department of Commerce on how their actions may impact listed species. At the end of the consultation, NMFS issues a biological opinion (BiOp) as to whether the action would jeopardize the continued existence of a listed species or damage its critical habitat. As part of the consultation process, NMFS recommends mitigation measures to avoid harm. Protective measures for fish often come at a cost in terms of energy generation or irrigation supply, and this tension between natural resources and energy production and irrigation is at the heart of conflict in the Columbia Basin.

Beginning in 1992, a series of BiOps were issued by NMFS. Courts have found almost all of them inconsistent with the ESA. The most recent BiOp was a 2010 supplement to the May 2008 BiOp, produced after the 2005 BiOp was remanded by a court for being arbitrary and capricious. In August 2011, that 2010 supplemental BiOp was also found insufficient by a federal court, and the temporary measures put in place in 2005 continue to dictate FCRPS operation.

In the meantime, NMFS authorized Washington and Oregon to kill sea lions that gather seasonally below the Bonneville Dam to eat salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon. The authorization was revoked in November 2010, following a Ninth Circuit decision that the permit to kill was contrary to law. The court found that NMFS could not justify killing sea lions when the sea lions’ take of the salmon was shown to be no larger than that of commercial fishing, which the court found had not been curtailed. In May 2011, NMFS authorized states to kill up to 85 sea lions, but withdrew that authorization in July 2011. In March 2012, NMFS authorized Washington, Oregon, and Idaho to kill or remove up to 92 animals annually through May 2016.

Since the first listing, steps have been taken to improve salmon and steelhead habitat. In a major action, removal of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River, a Columbia River tributary above Bonneville Dam, began with initial breaching on October 26, 2011. Upon completion, dam removal is expected to reopen 33 miles of habitat to steelhead trout and 14 miles of habitat to salmon. In addition, BPA continually modifies dams and associated structures to better facilitate upstream and downstream fish passage. 

Date of Report: January 2, 2013
Number of Pages: 22
Order Number: R40169
Price: $29.95

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