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NW Fishletter #316, April 18, 2013

[2] Panel Says Stick With Expensive Habitat Monitoring Programs

The expert panel that weighs the scientific merit of proposals in the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife program has recommended a few tweaks to several BiOp-mandated projects that hope to eventually relate habitat improvements to improved fish numbers. The group gave the projects a fresh vote of confidence and said they should continue.

"This understanding [of the relationship between restored habitat and fish productivity] has been lacking for the Columbia Basin, and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, and has likely severely hampered the effectiveness of restoration efforts over the last thirty years," said the summary from the Independent Scientific Review Panel (ISRP). Without continuing the projects, the panel said it was "likely that uncoordinated habitat monitoring will continue, and learning from our successes and failures will be hindered."

When the ISRP reported on its results at the April 9 meeting of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Spokane, several council members and staffers voiced concerns about the high cost of these projects to track habitat gains. When other monitoring programs that measure fish survival, hatchery effects, and ocean productivity are added, the cost to BPA is nearly $90 million a year.

But lost in the lively discussion was the clear understanding and acknowledgement that the two programs under review are mandated by the 2008 hydro BiOp, and no amount of grousing about their costs will change much about them.

The two projects, CHaMP [Columbia Habitat Monitoring Program] and ISEMP [Integrated Status and Effectiveness Monitoring Program], have cost BPA $9 million annually in recent years. The ISRP report also looked at an even newer process called Action Effectiveness Monitoring that will try and measure success of habitat improvements in Columbia tributaries.

ISEMP has focused on two things--monitoring trends for anadromous salmonids and their habitat in the Wenatchee, John Day and Salmon River basins; and developing effectiveness monitoring for suites of habitat restoration projects in selected watersheds within the three target subbasins.

These "selected watersheds" are known as IMWs--"intensively monitored watersheds." BPA spent about $6 million on the ISEMP project last year, with another $2.7 million from co-sponsors. In 2013, BPA will spend about $4 million on ISEMP.

CHaMP grew out of the ISEMP process and began monitoring eight subbasins "to capture habitat features that drive fish population biology," according to budget documents. The effort is expected to yield information on trends and habitat status that will be used to assess "basin-wide habitat condition," and will be correlated with "biological response indicators to evaluate habitat management strategies."

When fully implemented, CHaMP will study 26 distinct fish populations in 19 subbasins. BPA spent about $2.8 million on the program last year, and will spend about the same amount in 2013, with very little co-sponsor funding.

After the ISRP presentation, discussion among Council members focused on how much more scrutiny the projects will face during the Council's upcoming process to amend the F&W program. After hearing that the ICEMP program still could not show a positive benefit to fish populations from riparian restoration, Washington member Tom Karier said he was a fan of this project when it was funded 10 years ago, but "$40 million later," he's lost his enthusiasm.

"When ISEMP was funded," said Karier, "I don't think many people appreciated that it was a long-term process to figure out how to measure these things. That's become increasingly aware, so we spend tens of millions of dollars on how to measure that." He said the region was still lacking a way to correlate biological outcomes for fish with the habitat work.

Tony Grover, director of the council's F&W division, explained that the whole point of these efforts is to get the region away from expensive monitoring efforts for every project. "The theory is," said Grover, "it's going to be more efficient."

But he thought the region is only 10 to 15 percent of the way toward completing the transition to the new methodology. "This is really the messiest time of this whole process" he added. "We're this big giant system here--there's no other analog in the world. We can't really look at what they're doing in the Chesapeake Bay, or somewhere else and have them help us think this through. We're developing these tools ourselves, and we're making some mistakes. Hopefully, we're learning along the way ... I personally don't know if I sense it's a good investment. I have a hard time seeing the benefit of it."

Grover said he was pretty much where members Karier and Idaho's Bill Booth rated it. "Maybe we squeeze that portion of the pie way, way down," Grover added, noting that he was only speaking for himself.

Members said they will probably be discussing this more in coming months, and wrestle with questions about the level of costs associated with developing the higher levels of certainty future habitat projects may require to ensure they will do what they are intended--to ultimately improve fish numbers. -B. R.

The following links were mentioned in this story:

ISRP results

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