Draft BiOp misses opportunity for Idaho salmon

BOISE — Federal agencies squandered an opportunity this morning to chart a course toward collaborative solutions for Idaho’s endangered salmon and steelhead.

If finalized as is, the draft salmon plan released this morning by NOAA Fisheries would ensure a continued legal battle just when the region is moving toward a broad-based solutions process.

“All four of the government’s salmon recovery plans to date have been declared illegal, and there’s nothing in this new draft plan to indicate a new direction,” said IRU salmon program manager Greg Stahl. “The two years since the last plan was ruled illegal were an opportunity to build a foundation for collaborative talks. This plan won’t help us move that direction.”

At the core of the opportunity for progress is salmon spill – water sent over dams to help young salmon reach the Pacific more safely. 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 spill test in its draft plan, NOAA has opted to roll back current spill to even lower levels and has rejected majority science in the process,” Stahl said.

Last December NOAA initiated interviews of more than 200 people, agencies, tribes and officials throughout the region, and salmon advocates have been hoping the process can become the foundation for collaborative talks. This plan, said IRU board member Tom Stuart, wouldn’t be a very good start.

“This draft plan ignores the best science, sidesteps the court’s explicit instructions to do more for salmon, curtails the proven benefits of spill, perpetuates uncertainty and fails to address the impacts of climate change,” Stuart said. “By issuing yet another status quo plan that does too little for salmon, NOAA and the Bonneville Power Administration have damaged momentum toward collaboration. Instead of moving us toward real solutions, this plan may well force us all back into court.”

Despite congratulatory self-evaluations and exaggerated reports from federal agencies, most of the 13 ESA-listed salmon stocks in the Columbia and Snake rivers remain at risk of extinction. While eight consecutive years of spill and favorable ocean conditions have provided modest improvements, many salmon populations, especially in Idaho, remain critically low or in decline.

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 slightly 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.

“Given the incredible sum of money already spent, ratepayers and taxpayers should expect to see a far greater return on their investment,” Stuart said. “It’s obvious federal agencies are spending lots of money on measures that aren’t working. It’s disappointing to see yet another salmon plan that fails to deliver for salmon, electric ratepayers or taxpayers.”

The opportunity, however, is not completely gone. The final plan is due by the end of the year.

“The administration has a little more than three months to turn this missed opportunity into real progress for people, jobs and salmon,” Stuart said.