Federal agencies force region back to court over salmon

IRU and our allies filed in federal court this morning challenging the federal government’s old, tired, insufficient salmon policy.

IRU and our allies filed in federal court this morning challenging the federal government’s old, tired, insufficient salmon policy.

Idaho Rivers United and allied organizations filed a federal lawsuit today challenging the federal government’s old, tired and ineffective plan for restoring Idaho’s endangered salmon and steelhead.

The lawsuit, filed against NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation in U.S. District Court in Portland, asks Judge Michael Simon to strike down a supplemental salmon plan (called a biological opinion) and force federal agencies to comply with laws regarding endangered species protection.

“Federal agencies in the Northwest seem to think they’re above the law and free to ignore what the law requires and what a federal judge ordered in 2011,” said IRU Salmon Program Coordinator Greg Stahl. “This doesn’t even meet a kindergartener’s understanding of right, wrong and the application of justice. If any of us had ignored the law for two decades we’d likely be in jail.”

Two and a half years after federal Judge James Redden ordered NOAA to rewrite its salmon plan and consider lower Snake River dam removal as a legitimate option for salmon recovery, the agency released a biological opinion in January 2014 that basically resembles its predecessor—and is even worse for salmon in some ways.

  • It proposes to roll back spill—water sent over dams to help young salmon reach the Pacific more safely.
  • It ignores the worsening impacts of climate change, which are already impacting salmon.
  • It ignores a federal judge’s explicit order to consider lower Snake River dam removal.

“It’s strange to be issuing yet another press release that more or less resembles ones we’ve distributed in the past, but we were forced down this path by federal agencies that are ignoring sound science and the law,” Stahl said. “The past two to three years have been an opportunity for NOAA Fisheries to write a legal, scientifically-sound salmon plan, but what they came up with appears to fall way short.”

The Biological Opinion was released on the heels of a December 2013 study showing clearly that the people of the region want a new, collaborative path toward salmon recovery. The report, called a Long-Term Recovery Situation Assessment, was the result of a year-long process that included interviews with more than 200 stakeholders throughout the region.

“The report confirmed that Idahoans and others in the Northwest are ready to collaborate in pursuit of durable solutions to our salmon issue,” said Tom Stuart, an IRU board member and avid fisherman.. “From energy production to transportation and water use, the challenges and opportunities are numerous, but collaboration will be next to impossible while NOAA is forcing the region into another round of litigation.”

Spill is another distinct opportunity for progress missed in NOAA’s new Biological Opinion. A basic level of spill has been in place under court order since 2006, with significant benefits for salmon, and scientists say expanded spill could help even more.

“Instead of considering a test of expanded spill in its plan, NOAA has opted to roll back current spill to even lower levels,” Stuart said. “By issuing another status quo plan that does too little for salmon, NOAA and the Bonneville Power Administration have damaged momentum toward collaboration.”

U.S. taxpayers and Pacific Northwest ratepayers have spent $13 billion since the 1980s on salmon recovery measures that have not worked—with about $10 billion spent in the last decade alone. While some ESA-listed salmon and steelhead runs are better off than they were in the 1990s, none are close to being recovered. Many remain at dangerously-low levels, similar to conditions that led to their protection under the ESA in the first place.