Three states and four Native American tribes are asking the federal government for permission to kill both California and Steller sea lions that are taking up residence in the lower Columbia River, eating their fill of fish and threatening recovery of some stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act.

The June 13 application seeks to utilize provisions in the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act, which broadens authority to capture and euthanize these marine mammals now roaming up the Columbia River in record numbers. The new law enacted by Congress last December provides greater flexibility for determining if a sea lion should be lethally removed.

The 94-page application for a five-year permit asks the National Marine Fisheries Service to allow wildlife agencies to remove both California and Steller sea lions in the Columbia River upstream from the Interstate 205 bridge at river mile 112 and below McNary Dam, beginning in 2020.

It would also allow sea lion removal on any Columbia River tributary where threatened or endangered salmon or steelhead spawn in Washington, or in Oregon below McNary Dam.

"We request that removals are not contingent on non-lethal hazing activities as they have repeatedly been shown to be ineffective," the permit application states.

The document outlines the growing problem of sea lions in the Columbia River, unsuccessful efforts to remove them using non-lethal methods, and plans for reducing their numbers under provisions in the new law.

"From an ecosystem perspective, it's one piece of trying to save these salmon runs before they blink out," Kessina Lee, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's Region 5 director, told NW Fishletter. "The state has invested and continues to invest so much in salmon recovery, fish passage, and harvest management and habitat restoration, and we're getting better at hatchery operations. This is just another piece. We want to make sure we're addressing everything we possibly can," she said.

NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Millstein said in an email to NW Fishletter that his agency will publish a notice of the application in the Federal Register later this summer that will include an opportunity for public comment. The agency must also create a task force to consider the application and fulfill other procedural requirements, including review under the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and Marine Mammals Protection Act.

The new law gives authority to the three states and four tribes that applied--Washington, Oregon and Idaho, and the Nez Perce, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Yakama tribes.

The application asks for a permit to euthanize both California and Steller sea lions, instead of just California sea lions.

Under the new law, NOAA Fisheries must ensure the number of sea lions killed does not affect the sustainability of these populations, which equates to no more than 920 animals each year.

Lee noted that wildlife agencies have never come close to removing the permitted numbers. States have taken a total of 219 California sea lions since permits to remove them were first issued in 2008. Although the new law does not require states and tribes to prove an individual animal is preying on salmon or steelhead before removing it to be euthanized, Lee said considering staff and equipment resources available, it would be difficult to remove all of the sea lions they're permitted to take in the lower river. "Strictly from a logistics standpoint, I don't see us coming close to those upper limits," she said.

Prior to the new law, wildlife managers were severely restricted in their ability to catch and kill California sea lions, and have had no permission to kill Steller sea lions. Agencies had to individually identify each animal and document that it had preyed on a salmon or steelhead at Bonneville Dam before capturing it. Last year, Oregon officials were also permitted to take California sea lions at Willamette Falls under the same strict provisions, but other parts of the river remained off limits.

The removal effort is expected to save thousands--and potentially tens of thousands--of adult Chinook, steelhead and sturgeon over the five-year permit period, the application says. According to NOAA Fisheries, sea lions have consumed an estimated 71,000 salmon and steelhead since 2002 at Bonneville Dam alone.

Lee said one of the biggest changes for her agency will be dealing with Steller sea lions, which are much larger than the California sea lions they've been trapping.

"They're extremely large," she said. "We anticipate some could be 2,800 pounds when they're really thriving on the river. That's two or three times as large as a California sea lion," she added.

According to a NOAA Fisheries document comparing the two, male Steller sea lions average about 1,250 pounds and are 10 feet long, while male California sea lions average 600 pounds and are up to eight and a half feet long.

In January, wildlife managers won Northwest Power and Conservation Council approval for a $52,000 appropriation to build a new barge and purchase three new traps that will hold and trap the more massive sea lions. But Lee said the Bonneville Power Administration hasn't yet funded the purchase.

"Our indications are that they would like to wait until this application is approved by NOAA, and we actually have the authority," she said. Unless the agency decides to purchase the equipment without BPA funds, wildlife managers won't have the equipment available to train staff before getting the permit, she noted.

If approved, the states and tribes expect to maintain between two and eight traps--some at Willamette Falls, year-round; and the rest at Bonneville Dam, in the spring and fall. The agencies would also consider capturing sea lions at other locations, depending on whether sea lions are present and staff is available.

According to the application, California sea lions began foraging farther up the Columbia River in the mid-1990s in search of prey--mostly salmon, steelhead and smelt. Their numbers in the lower river stayed in the hundreds until 2013, when the population increased significantly, and have since ranged from 1,000 to 3,800.

From 2002 to 2018, the number of California sea lions at Bonneville Dam ranged from 30 to 195 animals. The majority of those that could be recognized individually have been seen at the dam for two or more years, suggesting they habituate to the location.

Abundance of California sea lions also increased at Willamette Falls, where Oregon officials received permission last year to euthanize animals.

The much larger Steller sea lions were first seen at Bonneville Dam in 2003, when three animals were documented there, and increased to 89 sea lions in 2011.

The application says that sea lions are now regularly documented in the Sandy and Clackamas rivers in Oregon; and the Cowlitz, Kalama, Elochamon, Washougal and Lewis rivers in Washington, with multiple reports of the sea lions eating salmon and steelhead.

K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.