IRU challenges feds' salmon plan

Idaho Rivers United and a coalition of regional and national organizations filed an amended lawsuit today in Portlands U.S. District Court challenging the government's latest plan for operating federal dams on the Columbia and lower Snake Rivers without harming imperiled wild salmon. 

Idaho Rivers United is one of several plaintiffs, along with other conservation groups, commercial and sport fishing organizations, clean energy advocates and taxpayer watchdogs, who say the Bush Administrations latest salmon plan (called a Biological Opinion or BiOp) is still illegal. 

"For two decades now federal governments efforts to restore Idaho's wild salmon and steelhead runs to self-sustaining levels have been inadequate, inconsistent and illegal," said Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. "This plan is no different." 

"Despite two years of work and a clear warning from the federal courts that the Administration cannot ignore the Endangered Species Act, the governments new plan is worse than ever," Sedivy said. Our only option is to ask the courts to intervene again, hold the government accountable and require it to obey the law.

In addition to filing litigation today, the groups are also calling on Congressional leadership for legislative solutions to the declining salmon populations that have led to unprecedented fishery closures this year up and down the West Coast. 

And while a bump in hatchery returns have allowed for some increased fishing opportunities in Idaho this season, predictions for wild spring/summer chinook returns in Idaho still fall well below recovery targets.

After so many failed plans, we cannot rely on the Bush Administration to help restore salmon in Idaho or the rest of the Northwest, Sedivy said. And with the exception of the Oregon governor the political leaders of the Northwest, including Idaho, haven't done much better. That's why well need to look for leaders in Congress from outside our region to step to the plate with legislation that will authorize removal of the four outdated dams on the lower Snake River dams and provide real, long-term solutions to this salmon crisis.

Among those hardest hit by the West Coast salmon crisis are fishermen, whose livelihoods and family businesses have been put in jeopardy by fishery closures in Oregon and California. Idaho business owners can sympathize all too well with the economic hardships that result from federal failure. 

"The Administration's plan not only deliberately ignores science, it overlooks the tens of thousands of people from the West Coast to Central Idaho who depend on these fish for their jobs," said Rexann Zimmerman, owner of the local tackle shop in Riggins, Idaho. "Without abundant, harvestable populations of salmon many of Idaho's rural riverside communities will never see long-term economic stability." 

This BiOp, released on May 5, is the latest in a long history of failure by federal agencies to protect and restore wild salmon throughout the West. The plan has been criticized for its lack of science-based analysis. 

"Like its predecessors, this plan ignores sound science and disregards the economic value of salmon and steelhead to Idaho's rural communities," said Sedivy. "A plan rooted in science would not ignore the devastating impacts of the four lower Snake River dams as this plan does."

The previous three BiOps have been found legally and scientifically lacking by federal courts, forcing re-write after re-write. U.S. District Court Judge James Redden in Portland soundly rejected the federal government's 2004 salmon plan and raised serious concerns about the draft biological opinion last October. The Judge indicated that serious consequences for federal hydro-system operations would follow if federal administrators do not follow the law in this new BiOp.

Despite the Judge Redden's warning, this BiOp calls for cutting several key salmon protection measures and comes with a price tag of more than half a billion dollars per year.

While the new plan includes provisions for habitat restoration, hatchery production, and predator control, it calls for no significant changes to the region's federal hydro system, and it ignores the four lethal dams on the lower Snake River. Scientists agree that the four dams in Eastern Washington do the most harm to the basins endangered salmon. 

A majority of fisheries biologists say that the surest, and probably only way to restore Idaho's wild salmon populations is to remove the lower Snake River dams in Eastern Washington. Since the Bush Administration came to power in 2001, the federal government has refused to consider dam removal as part of the federal recovery plan.

"At the end of the day, we hope a positive court decision will lead to a thorough analysis once and for all that makes clear that removing the four lower Snake dams is the only recovery approach that will work for Idaho, for the region, and for the salmon on which so many people depend, Sedivy said.