Idaho salmon recovery in federal judge’s hands

Tom Stuart,

By Tom Stuart, IRU Board Member

In the long-running legal battle to restore Idaho salmon and steelhead, one chapter is nearing an end.

On Monday, May 9, in Portland, Ore., Federal District Judge James Redden heard final arguments in a case that will determine whether the federal government’s salmon management strategy, called a biological opinion, complies with the Endangered Species Act. Conservation groups and salmon advocates like Idaho Rivers United have long contended that the federal plan falls far short—and have repeatedly prevailed in court since 1995.

Every proposed federal plan to operate the eight federal dams and reservoirs on the Snake and Columbia rivers has been ruled insufficient and illegal thus far. We hope for another decision in favor of Idaho’s fish. A final ruling is expected this summer.

IRU was well represented by Conservation Director Kevin Lewis, and board members Don Reiman, Bill Boyer and myself. Other Idaho salmon advocates included four representatives of the courageous Nez Perce Tribe, Ketchum salmon information specialist Scott Levy and my long-time friend, biologist Bert Bowler. Indeed, the courtroom was packed with people of all stripes, and the Idaho contingent joined salmon supporters from throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Judge Redden began the proceedings with typical grace, greeting those in attendance and thanking them for their hard work on this complex issue. He noted collaborative efforts of some Northwest tribes and states, but added that such a process had not occurred until he insisted on it. He went on to reflect on unresolved and outstanding issues. Specifically, he talked about his concerns with the jeopardy standard, which addresses how much work the federal government is obligated to do under the Endangered Species Act. He also cited concerns with the federal plan’s reliance on estimated benefits from habitat improvement measures outside the Columbia-Snake river hydrosystem, and on future contingency plans.

“We know there is more work to do,” Redden said.

For the balance of the morning attorneys spoke to questions the Judge had asked in advance. Federal attorneys appeared to me to offer weak and incomplete information and explanations. Our attorneys, Todd True of Earthjustice, Roger DeHoog of Oregon and Dave Cummings of the Nez Perce Tribe, delivered outstanding arguments. I have rarely heard such clear and compelling explanations of the issues we contest.

At times Judge Redden appeared impatient with arguments that have become repetitive in the last couple of years. His impatience ended abruptly when at about noon he suddenly adjourned proceedings with the observation that he had obtained all the information he needed. Unless parties had other arguments, he said, their work was done for the day.

This begs the obvious question: What’s next?

There’s no way to know how Judge Redden might rule, and reading too far into Monday’s proceedings would be foolhardy. But my intuition is that he understands the problems with the proposed federal salmon management strategy.

Let’s hope for a favorable ruling and for a stronger plan that focuses salmon recovery work where it’s most needed—downriver from Idaho, in eight reservoirs and dams on the Snake and Columbia rivers.

The members, supporters and staff at IRU will continue to do everything they can in this forum, and in others, to do what’s needed for wild Idaho salmon and the health of the state’s rivers.

And we’re looking forward to hearing from Judge Redden in the months to come.

  • Click here to read a press release on the hearing from Idaho Rivers United.