Conservation groups highlight salmon plan’s shortcomings in federal court

Salmon man business in central Idaho, and federal salmon plans have been thumbing their noses at Idaho's small towns for nearly two decades. (Photo by Jeff Barney)

Idaho Rivers United and allied organizations returned to federal district court in Portland June 23 to argue that the government’s insufficient and misdirected strategies for restoring Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead are illegal.

The lawsuit, filed in June 2014 against NOAA Fisheries, the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation, asks Judge Michael Simon to strike down a supplemental salmon plan (called a biological opinion) and force federal agencies to comply fully with Endangered Species Act requirements.  Four previous federal salmon plans have been ruled illegal by federal judges.

IRU Board Member Tom Stuart attended the Portland hearing.

“Judge Simon really did his homework and posed many detailed questions to both the plaintiffs and defendants,” he said. “The judge heard persuasive arguments asserting that the federal government has not done nearly enough to restore Idaho’s wild salmon.  They’ve set the recovery bar illegally low, and have not even done what the previous judge ordered them to do.  We hope Judge Simon will be forceful in demanding that NOAA, BPA, and the Corps follow the law.”

Beginning in 2003 federal courts have declared four successive Columbia River Basin salmon plans illegal. Most recently, in 2011, Judge James Redden ordered NOAA to rewrite its salmon plan and consider lower Snake River dam removal as a legitimate option for salmon recovery. Surprisingly, the agency released a biological opinion in January 2014 that closely resembles its predecessor—and is worse in some ways.

  • It proposes to roll back spill—water sent over dam spillways to help more young salmon reach the Pacific safely.
  • It ignores the increasing impacts of climate change, already affecting salmon.
  • It ignores a federal judge’s explicit order to consider lower Snake River dam removal, and prepare for it if necessary to restore salmon.
  • Rather than implementing a legal, science-based standard to protect wild salmon and rebuild populations, it contends that “trending toward recovery”—a silly standard that claims one additional fish per year – meets the letter of the law.

“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,” said IRU Conservation Director Kevin Lewis. “NOAA Fisheries and other agencies once again had an opportunity to write a legal, scientifically-sound salmon plan, but what they came up with appears to fall way short.”

The last decade’s favorable ocean conditions, good snowpack and court-ordered spill have combined to maintain, and in some cases boost, salmon returns in the Columbia Basin. While large numbers of two stocks—Columbia River fall chinook and Columbia River sockeye—returned in recent years the numbers for most of the 13 ESA-listed stocks have at best merely stabilized—and none are even close to recovery.  This year, returns of Idaho’s iconic sockeye salmon to Redfish Lake are expected to decline.  With a recent cyclic downturn in ocean conditions, salmon restoration will depend more than ever on good river management.

“This salmon plan moves us in the wrong direction,” Lewis said. “Removing the high-cost, low-value lower Snake River dams and, as an interim step, expanding spill at Snake and Columbia river dams, are the best things we can do to restore wild salmon, restore fishery-dependent jobs, save taxpayer and ratepayer money.”

IRU and other conservation groups were joined in court by attorneys for the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe.

“The federal government’s continued failure to live up to its responsibilities is a major disappointment and a missed opportunity,” Lewis said. “For two decades we’ve been spending billions without getting much closer to actual salmon recovery, and we can’t keep up this level of waste.”

U.S. taxpayers and Pacific Northwest ratepayers have spent more than $13 billion since the 1980s on salmon recovery measures that have not worked—with about $10 billion spent in the last decade alone.