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[1] Politics May Trump Science In Upcoming BiOp
[2] Fish Managers Boost Estimate As Spring Run Peaks
[3] Making Amends: Council Gets Input On F&W Program Changes
[4] Oregon Adopts Temporary Rule To Harvest Endangered Coho
[5] FERC Won't Reconsider Ruling On Enloe Dam License

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Action agencies (Bonneville Power Administration, Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers) got their first look last Friday at the draft hydro BiOp, last promised by NMFS for public view on May 22. By all accounts they weren't very happy with the document, which is intended to be the blueprint that spells out hydro operations and fish recovery measures for the next 10 years.

Sources have said that high agency officals feel blind-sided by the draft's language setting goals for major improvements in all seven index stocks of Snake spring chinook over the next five years. If the goals aren't achieved, then NMFS would recommend that Congress approve breaching lower Snake dams. The draft policy contradicts NMFS' own scientists, who have said another ten years' worth of research is needed to help resolve critical uncertainties about salmon recovery.

The public may finally get to see the document around the middle of June, after a week of agency review followed by a couple of weeks of perusal by state agencies and tribes. Originally, NMFS had aimed to have a new BiOp in place by April, to guide this year's operations. But with the end of the development process in sight, the "I love you" virus hit many regional computers, said NMFS spokesman Eric Ostrovsky, causing more delay.

Sources say that most hydro ops will be pretty similar to those that have been in effect since 1995, when the last BiOp took effect, spreading the risk for fish between inriver and barging strategies because of continued uncertainties about the value of each route. But there is one big difference: the new BiOp will contain performance standards that spell out some new goals for fish survival. Insiders say that BPA will be on the hook to boost current inriver fish survivals (estimated at around 60 percent) by about another 30 percent--requiring the agency to make major improvements in the other H's of habitat, harvest and hatcheries. It's all based on the hypothesis that without the dams, more than 80 percent of the Snake River spring chinook would make it to the estuary.

Some of the benefits may not kick in for some time. Sources say the BiOp doesn't figure much of a boost from habitat restoration until 50 years from now.

The bombshell on the breaching issue dropped quietly last week during a May 19 conference call involving NMFS, White House officials and state representatives, and billed by the Clinton Administration as a briefing to Northwest states on federal efforts to restore salmon. In a press release issued later that day, Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality George Frampton said that performance measures would be used to gauge salmon recovery efforts, along with a "trigger" mechanism that will put the dam breaching question before Congress, "if, within a certain number of years, it is clear that recovery targets are not being met."

Frampton said that while the science suggests that dam breaching could significantly benefit salmon recovery, "it also suggests that other methods might lead to recovery. In other words, the science does not clearly indicate that breaching is the only possible option; nor does it allow us to take that option off the table."

Sources indicate the draft BiOp gives the hydro system only five years to meet the targets before the question would go to Congress, a situation that has action agencies sputtering over the latest NMFS directives. But others say the breaching clause was added at the eleventh hour to head off any potential lawsuits that might allege the feds were not doing all they could to help the fish.

Frampton's press release also said that, given the scientific uncertainties, "the best course is to pursue all other reasonable options while preparing to undertake breaching, if it proves necessary." The proposed strategy calls for work to begin "immediately" on technical studies that would be part of any breaching recommendation to Congress, along with a plan to mitigate economic impacts.

The release also said the new BiOp and the federal caucus' All-H paper will help shape the Corps of Engineers' feasibility study on future operations on the lower Snake. The Corps has promised a preferred alternative in its final EIS, after pressure from Administration officials kept the Corps from selecting a non-breaching alternative in its 4,000-page draft EIS issued last December.

NMFS was pushing for more water as well. Montana NWPPC member Stan Grace, who was on the call, said NMFS regional administrator Will Stelle told participants that more water for flow augmentation in the Columbia system was being discussed and Canada was a possible source. Grace said Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, the only chief exec from the Northwest on the line, told them that he supported an intense recovery effort over the next few years, but if it didn't begin work to recover fish, the dams should be taken out in five years.

Water was on other brains last week as environmental groups sought an injunction to stop alleged illegal irrigation diversions by the Bureau of Reclamation in both the Snake and Columbia rivers. The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund led the effort in Portland District Court, citing the earlier NMFS BiOp and updates to it as calling for more Snake River water than the 427,000 acre-feet now released. A hearing is expected in mid-July with a ruling by federal salmon judge Malcolm Marsh to come sometime later. -Bill Rudolph


In more good news for fish-starved Idaho, Columbia River fish managers have boosted their predictions of the upriver spring chinook run. They took the numbers up a notch from 134,000 to 160,000 fish, counted from Bonneville Dam, where the run has been streaming along at about three times the 10-year average. If the momentum continues, the numbers could reach 180,000 fish or more by the end of the month when the count officially ends. By May 21, nearly 171,000 springers had been counted.

Photo of fisherman aat Bonneville Dam
Sturgeon fishermen at Bonneville Dam.
fishers got a crack at a commercial fishery for the first time in over 20 years and were allowed to sell their catch directly to the public. They were expected to catch about 3,000 chinook, and some of their fish have already shown up and sold out quickly at Seattle seafood counters.

Meanwhile, up at Lower Granite, the spring count has been running at about three times the 10-year average as well. By May 21, about 24,000 chinook had passed the dam. Fish managers estimated that about 10 percent of the run is made up of ESA-listed wild chinook. By this time last year, only 1,168 wild and hatchery fish had been counted.

Fish managers from Idaho Fish and Game groused in the press about the low numbers of returning wild fish, as they prepared to open up two areas for sportsfishers to take advantage of the hatchery bonanza. Idaho fish biologist Russ Kiefer said he believes the good run results from a combination of good downstream flows for juveniles and good ocean conditions.

Excess spring chinook returning to the Dworshak hatchery will be trapped and trucked back to the mouth of the Clearwater River. There, the fish will be released again to swim past another gauntlet of sportsfishers. Extra fish returning to the Rapid River hatchery below Hells Canyon on the Snake will also be targeted by sports fishing, IDF&G announced May 8.

Next year, Idaho's excess hatchery fish problem will be much more severe. As ocean conditions have improved over the last few seasons, this spring's huge counts of returning jack chinook point to a monumental return of Idaho hatchery fish next year--partly because the state released four times as many last year as they did in 1998.

Fish counts are beginning to build at Priest Rapids Dam on the mainstem Columbia as well, where biologists predict a much better year than 1999. By May 21, about 17,000 fish had been counted, nearly three times the 10-year average for that facility. And Washington fish managers opened the Icicle River near Wenatchee to sportsfishers to waylay 18,000 extra hatchery fish that are expected to pass by in a few weeks.

But some folks are getting a little concerned about the lack in this year's spring run of 3-ocean fish--chinook that spend three years in the ocean before migrating home. Idaho hatchery runs usually include a 25-percent 3-ocean component, and half of the wild Snake fish runs are usually of the 3-ocean variety. The 3-ocean fish are important because they contain a much larger percentage of females (about 50 percent) than the 2-oceans. So far, only about 1 percent of this year's Snake run is made up of the larger fish.

And although the 2-ocean fish are returning in big numbers, they are a bit scrawny compared to some previous years. Small fish have also been noticed in the California salmon fishery this spring. The condition could be tied to an extremely cold winter last year in the Bering Sea, which is possibly related to an atmospheric circulation pattern known as the Arctic Oscillation, said University of Washington researcher Kate Myers.

Myers said her annual cruises to the north have shown a trend of declining abundance of salmon in the Bering Sea, where young chinook from the West Coast like to feed, but a corresponding large increase in salmon numbers south of the Aleutians and in the Gulf of Alaska. She speculated that if many western Alaska stocks have moved south for better foraging, the upshot could be more fish feeding in a smaller area, and may account for the small-sized fish in the spring run.

The fish may be small, but their big numbers have attracted national attention. CBS news filmed a spot at Bonneville Dam that aired April 28, while the same network's "60 Minutes" had a production crew filming at Lower Granite Dam--though their focus seemed to be on juvenile migration. NMFS biologist Jerry Harmon, who runs the salmon crew at the dam's adult fish trap, told NW Fishletter the "60 Minutes" team declined his invitation to film the bumper crop of salmon that were coming home. "They said they didn't want to confuse the issue and told me they target their stories at the seventh grade level," Harmon said. -Bill Rudolph


With the passing of the May 12 deadline for proposals, the Power Planning Council has officially ended the first phase of the latest amendment process to the Columbia Basin's fish and wildlife program. Tribes, state agencies, economic stakeholders, environmental groups and others filed 55 submissions with the Council.

Spokesman John Harrison said the Council had asked that proposed amendments address the program at the basin and province levels--with specific recommendations to come later, after sub-basin assessments are completed.

But that didn't stop some groups from weighing in on the heavy side. The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission sent in 800 pages of proposed amendments, including their 1996 tribal fish and wildlife restoration plan, Wy-Kan-Ush-Mi-Wa-Kish-Wit, as an attachment. CRITFC's proposal carries a $6 billion price tag for implementation, with more than $5 billion to restore a "normative hydrograph" in the Columbia River mainstem and achieve 2 percent to 6 percent smolt-to-adult fish returns.

But other responses were more grounded in the present dilemma of increasing fish numbers and harvests while protecting weak stocks listed under the ESA. In a cover letter that accompanied his comments, Public Power Council assistant director Rob Walton said "the [Power Planning] Council should take the lead in producing a vision, with specific objectives and strategies, that will provide increasing levels of harvest in the context of the Endangered Species Act."

Walton pointed out that current harvest methods and restrictions on catching ESA-listed spring stocks during this year's extremely large spring chinook run "provides dramatic evidence that having more salmon or steelhead isn't enough--it doesn't assure success." Without a new production (i.e. hatchery) and harvest plan that improves the efficiency of both treaty and non-treaty catches of non-listed stocks, Walton said current policy "looms as a major impediment to a successful program." He urged the Council to formulate a vision that includes the goals developed by the Federal Caucus.

Walton is encouraging the region to look at alternatives to gillnet harvesting, which does not allow for live release of wild fish. He said if tribes harvested salmon at fish ladders, a much larger catch of hatchery fish would occur--especially if all hatchery progeny were visibly marked with a clipped fin, a strategy now being implemented in the basin on a piecemeal basis. Fishwheels are another terminal harvest method that should be studied, Walton said.

But tribal fishers aren't enthused about giving up their gillnet fishery and are opposed to mass marking of salmon as well. "The facts are that mass marking kills juvenile fish, it is extremely costly, and serves no legitimate scientific purpose," CRITFC counsel John Platt recently told Clearing Up. "Its purpose is to duck the problems of rebuilding and restoration by requiring certain fisheries to release the unmarked and usually injured fish they hook."

In its own proposals, CRITFC calls for a $34 million program to implement the conservation and allocation provisions of the Pacific Salmon Treaty and a whopping $288 million to pay for a basin-wide fish supplementation effort, which includes the transfer of several hatcheries to tribal control.

CRITFC also opposes the "broadening of the authority" of the science panel that reviews the fish and wildlife program's individual proposals. "For this amendment process," says CRITFC's cover letter, "the statutory deference to the fish and wildlife managers mandated under the Power Act must be followed. This statutory deference cannot be subordinated in any manner to the ISRP [Independent Scientific Review Panel] or any other scientific group. You are aware that the tribes' suit against the NWPPC for its misuse of the ISRP in the program funding process was dismissed without prejudice. The tribes will not hesitate to reinitiate litigation if an attempt is made again to undermine the statutory deference to which the tribes are entitled."

On other fronts, it seems that some federal agencies are willing to meet the Council's new process more than half-way. At the Council's Helena, MT, meeting last week, NMFS director of protected resources Donna Darm told members that her agency likes the Council's habitat planning effort now underway--along with the sub-basin template for assessing the future productivity and restoration potential throughout the basin.

It seems the Council effort will focus on habitat and hatcheries, with some effort going into the harvest arena. The agency is sponsoring a June 7 workshop on harvest concerns, suggested by PPC's Walton and Idaho Council member Mike Field.

As for hydro issues, NWPPC spokesman John Harrison said the Council will address mainstem fish survival issues, but whether that will include a specific recommendation on whether or not to breach lower Snake dams, "I can't tell you," Harrison said.

Other stakeholders would like to see the amendment process address future hydro issues since it was an integral part of the previous effort. Columbia, Snake River and eastern Oregon irrigators' associations, along with Northwest Irrigation Utilities, have proposed an amendment that would turn the present flow augmentation program on its ear. Citing NMFS' own PIT-tag research on fish survival, they recommend saving water that is now spilled in the spring to aid juvenile fish migration for use later in the summer. Spring revenues from extra power generated by turbines would be used for habitat restoration projects, and tribes would be encouraged to participate in new water projects.

Water consultant Darryll Olsen, who has pushed this new flow alternative for the past several years, was hopeful. "I think the Council's amendment process for the fish and wildlife program can fully trump actions of the NMFS policies. It's a very important process and result."

The old F&W program, approved in 1994 and still on the books, called for partial-year drawdowns of some reservoirs and the barging of fish only in extremely low flow years. New research and even more freshly minted Council members will likely vote against these strategies later this year. The only NWPPC members to vote against the program in 1994 are still seated around the Council table: Montana representatives Stan Grace and John Etchart.

Public comment on the proposals will be accepted by the Council until June 20. -B. R.


After discovering that its Columbia River coho harvest proposal was actually illegal, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission passed a temporary rule to allow the fishery to continue. Along with thousands of hatchery fish, sportsmen will harvest small numbers of wild coho from the Clackamas and Sandy rivers, stocks listed as endangered under the state's ESA statute in 1999.

But two conservation groups testifying in opposition to the rule change said that since only a few hundred fish are expected to return this fall, the wild coho require more protection. In 1999, the Fish and Wildlife Commission provided a fishery on coho stocks, and only 51 fish were counted in the Clackamas River and 162 in the Sandy River. Earlier this year, when the Fish and Wildlife Department prepared to develop incidental take permits as required by state law, officials discovered that the fishery could take place only if it "will not adversely impact" the species. To bypass the legal question, commissioners asked assistant Attorney General Steve Sanders to develop some language that could be adopted as a temporary rule.

The new rule says "...an incidental take permit may be granted for incidental harvest of the listed fish during harvest seasons targeted on hatchery origin coho or other species, so long as the projected incidental impacts to the listed coho do not significantly decrease the likelihood that the fish will recover." Sanders told the commissioners "this language would shift the rule to allow fisheries to proceed, moving from an absolute to a more flexible standard."

This year, because of improved ocean conditions, more wild coho are expected to return. For the Sandy, the department harvest management staff estimate that from 100 to 985 fish will return, while the Clackamas wild coho run is expected to be 360 to 1,800 fish, after all fishery impacts.

After considerable debate and one executive session, the commissioners adopted the temporary rule for 180 days and lowered the harvest rate impact from the river sports fishery from 15 percent to 13.3 percent, less than a 2 percent cut. Known as the Buoy 10 fishery, managers expect nearly 55,000 hatchery coho to be landed in August and September.

Columbia River hatcheries are estimated to have produced nearly 400,000 adult coho this year. Ocean fisheries off Oregon and Washington are expected to take about 140,000 coho, with 45,000 going to the commercial sector (20,000 for treaty fishermen) and 95,000 to sportsfishers.

Mark Chilcote, ODFW Natural Production Program staff, said that under bad recruitment conditions, "For both populations, even with no harvest, the chance of recovery was very low. When harvest was added, the outlook became worse." But with good recruitment conditions, the fish would recover even with a 15 percent harvest impact. However, "If recruitment conditions over the next 24 years are like they have been over the last 6 years," Chilcote noted, "both populations are in serious trouble."

Department staffers presented a graph for the commissioners' benefit, which showed wild coho in such low abundance that their numbers barely registered.

"We are in a real box, a real trap on these two rivers," said Commissioner Don Denman, who said he reluctantly voted to adopt the temporary rule. "A couple of fish are important. Miracles do happen, and we should do what we can." But he wondered if cutting the harvest from 15 percent to 13.3 percent was the "right number." He said he did not know.

In 1982 the Oregon fish and wildlife agency adopted a coho management plan that maximized harvest of hatchery coho, but provided no spawners for seeding the rivers--which, in effect, scheduled the wild coho for extinction. The only wild coho remaining in the entire Columbia Basin are in the Sandy and Clackamas rivers.

"Once again, the fish are the losers," said Jim Myron of Oregon Trout. "There is no bottom line." -Bill Bakke


The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has refused Okanogan PUD's request to reconsider its order rescinding the license of the 4.1-MW Enloe Dam. The commission revoked the PUD's license for the project in February, based on NMFS' controversial demand for installation of fish passage facilities. Arguing that FERC's decision to rescind left no venue for further appeal, and also citing the commission's own criticism of NMFS' position on fish passage, the PUD in March asked the commission to reinstate its license application and refer the case for Alternative Dispute Resolution.

In its April 27 order denying Okanogan's request, the commission said it remains committed to ADR procedures "when there appears to be a possibility that they would remove some obstacle in a proceeding. However, we do not see that such a possibility exists here." FERC noted that NMFS, "supported by several other entities, have maintained consistently...that a license should never have been issued." The commission added that Okanogan's lack of a pending license should not forestall parties' future efforts to resolve outstanding disagreements on fish passage at Enloe, and that it would entertain a new application if stakeholders could reach agreement on those issues.

"Certainly the prospect of reapplying is an option, and the Court of Appeals may be another alternative. But I think further negotiations with the other stakeholders, with or without a pending application, is certainly something the District is interested in," said Don Clarke, attorney for Okanogan.

"For right now, we're inclined to hold still and see where the whole watershed planning process goes," added PUD power resource engineer Larry Felton. "We're seeing some positive developments with the different local government and Canadian entities involved. They're starting to see how no one is getting anything they want under the current conditions." -Angela Becker-Dippman

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