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Northwest salmon make legal headway

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WASHINGTON - By ruling against the Interior Department's current plan for restoring the salmon in the Columbia-Snake River Basin, U.S. District Judge James Redden has affirmed the plaintiff argument, leveled by Northwest tribes among others, that the plan does not go far enough in ensuring salmon recovery.

The decision on May 7, the most recent in a decade-long string of "salmon v. dam" rulings, stems from a case brought against a federal plan, released by Interior in 2000, to satisfy the Endangered Species Act with regard to 12 Pacific Northwest salmon species. The Interior plan primarily focuses on repairing the watersheds where salmon spawn but stops short of breaching four lower Snake River dams. A growing body of science, sentiment and experience points to dams as presenting a many-faceted hazard to salmon as they make their way to and from the oceans.

Though the recent decision is a step closer to breaching the dams, it is unclear whether federal agencies are willing to breach dams due to the politically conflicting nature of that strategy. While then governor of Texas, President Bush campaigned heavily against breaching dams in the Pacific Northwest. Federally subsidized hydroelectric power reaches four out of five homes in the region.

Dan Dubray, director of communications for Indian affairs for the Interior Department, could not be reached for comment June 10.

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But for tribes, according to Jonathan Modie of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a coordinating agency for fisheries management among four Columbia River treaty tribes, "This is an absolute victory and, it has been said in many circles, this decision puts dam breaching back on the table."

"This is an ongoing issue," he added. "It goes back years, and, until recently, the biological opinion has not had the teeth it needed. The decision is a victory in that it refutes biological opinion that is based on flawed environmental studies."

The 2000 plan was drafted in response to a 1994 lawsuit brought by the state of Idaho against the National Marine Fisheries Service, also a named defendant in last month's ruling. The 1994 ruling stated the salmon situation "literally cries out for a major overhaul." Judge Malcolm Marsh, who wrote the 1994 ruling, also directed that the federal government work with state and tribal biologists in formulating a strategy to save the salmon.

However, Modie said federal agencies failed to consult tribal agencies to the degree necessary while producing the 2000 plan. "Bonneville Power, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corp of Engineering (the parties supervising Pacific Northwest waterworks), must, according to this ruling follow guidelines that assume salmon are put back in the river and they will have to financially support ground breaking projects the tribes are working on. This decision says to Bonneville Power, 'your support has not been adequate.'"

Following the 1994 ruling, the federal agencies spent years developing the most recent proposal to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The Northwest public and the national media alike hailed the 2000 plan as hold-your-breath-bold when it appeared. But in remanding it last month to a lower court, Judge Redden gave federal fisheries one year to produce a plan that must go much further in protecting salmon.