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Tribes disappointed with federal salmon recovery draft plan

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The July release of the "Draft Basin-Wide Salmon Recovery Strategy," created by the Federal Caucus, may have signaled the start of a long environmental battle.

The draft, which recommends beefing-up current recovery plans through habitat mitigation and development of more efficient dam bypass systems and hatcheries for salmon, delays any decision on the breaching of four lower Snake River dams.

Breaching is considered by tribes and environmental groups to be the best chance summer- and spring-run Snake River chinook and steelhead salmon have for recovery.

Representatives of the Yakama, Nez Perce and Umatilla tribes expressed disappointment with the draft delivered by representatives of the National Marine Fisheries Service. Contributing agencies included the Army Corps of Engineers, Bonneville Power Administration, the BIA, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Charles Hudson, public information manager for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, said the commission and the tribes believed the draft was not worth the time, money and resources that went into its exhaustive five-year planning and research process.

"It does not meet the biological needs of salmon," Hudson said. "It fails to address the Clean Water Act. It fails to address the Endangered Species Act and fails to meet treaty obligations - the obligation to rebuild salmon to harvestable levels as required by treaty.

"It is a 'cross your fingers and we'll call a meeting if it doesn't work' type of strategy.

"And that's not a recovery plan."

In a letter to George Frampton, acting director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Antone Minthorn, chairman of the board of trustees for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, made it clear just how dissatisfied he and the Umatilla people are with the released draft.

"Today you have decided to purposefully, and consciously, cause the extinction of the Snake River salmon," said Minthorn. "Today you have decided what you won't do - you won't remove the largest killers of Snake River salmon - the four lower Snake River dams. ... Today you have decided to violate the solemn promises made by your forefathers to the Indian people of the Confederated Umatilla Tribes.

"Today you have decided to end the simple pleasures and joys of grandparents taking their grandchildren fishing for salmon. Today you have decided that tomorrow there will be no salmon in the Snake River."

Minthorn stressed that studies by tribal fisheries, as well as studies by the EPA and other independent organizations, indicate that dam removal would dramatically increase the chance of salmon recovery when coordinated with increased efforts in habitat restoration, continued harvest restrictions and additional hatchery supplementation programs.

He said that unless the federal government was willing to play hard ball in salmon recovery - meaning dam breaching on the lower Snake River - the Umatilla tribes were prepared to "fight for" the salmon and protect their treaty-guaranteed right to fish for salmon in their usual and accustomed territory.

Even though recovery of the Snake River salmon and steelhead is mandated by the Endangered Species Act, the Northwest Power Act, the Lower Snake River Compensation Act and the U.S./Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty, some members of conservation groups such as Idaho Rivers United say litigation by the tribes is about the best chance the Snake River salmon has.

"Treaty law is the big hammer at the end of what everybody says is our most effective stick at this point," said Dan Skinner, conservation organizer for Idaho Rivers United. "At this point a tribal lawsuit is even better than the ESA's threat of a lawsuit."

So far the track record for tribes flexing their legal muscles in the environmental arena is good. A 1997 Supreme Court decision enforced the Isleta Pueblo's rights to determine water-quality standards on the Rio Grande River to the tune of a $400 million bill for the city of Albuquerque. And in1999 a federal court in Wisconsin supported the Ojibwa Tribe's water quality standards in a case against Exxon Corp.

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Water quality improvement and habitat improvement are the bottom line for the Snake River salmon. Current EPA standards on water quality in the 140-mile stretch of the Snake River between Lewiston, Idaho and Kennewick, Wash., are not being met by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and haven't been met for years, the tribes say.

As the summer sun pounds flat water behind the dams and tributaries flowing into the Snake, steadily warm, migrating salmon, which prefer ambient temperatures around 68 degrees, are struggling in 75-degree water, biologists say - struggling and failing. So far no major fish kills have been reported, but biologists agree the summer conditions are reaching a critical point.

The same could be said for tribes. But Minthorn said the Umatilla would wait until the final version of the recovery strategy was released before making any decisions about litigation.

The draft, released eight months past the due date set by Federal District Judge Malcolm Marsh, should be finalized within 60 days. The interim period is reserved for public feedback and final revisions.

Consensus of biologists with the National Marine Fisheries Service is that the normal 60-day finalization stage will be considerably longer this time around.

Scott Bosse, a fish biologist with Idaho Rivers United concurs. At a meeting with George Frampton at the White House the evening before the draft was released, Frampton indicated the final report would not be available until after the November elections.

"He admitted that this was released very prematurely but ... they felt like they had to show the public something," Bosse said. "He said all of the numbers are changeable, which makes you think, 'Gee. This must be a really rigorous scientific document if all the numbers are changeable.'

"I mean science is based on empirical measurements, and if numbers can change with an election, you know certainly they're twisting it."

But representatives of the Fish and Wildlife and the Marine Fisheries say that if they were to arrive at recommendations that fit the goals stated by the Federal Caucus they had little choice in delaying plans to breach the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams.

Goals call for remedies to conserve species and facilitate recovery of salmon and other aquatic species; to conserve ecosystems; assure tribal fishing rights and restore salmon and steelhead populations to a level that would provide "meaningful" tribal harvests; and to minimize adverse socio-economic impacts.

Bill Shake, Fish and Wildlife special assistant to the regional director, said one major issue was the fact that dam removal focuses only on Snake River stocks and there are 12 other stocks in the main stem Columbia that need some "fairly drastic attention.

"I think the proposal, the way it's currently outlined, does call for those aggressive actions and some fairly sharp performance measures or standards that need to be met over the next five years or so," Shake said. "If those measures aren't being met and results aren't being achieved, then I think the federal agencies have utterly indicated that dam breaching is on the table and may have to be considered at that time."

Shake also said one of the main reasons agencies backed away from dam breaching was because biologists still have questions concerning conditions in the ocean and Columbia River estuaries that may contribute to salmon mortality as much as the dams themselves. The agencies say they need time to gather more information on other possibilities.

But time is the one thing that Snake River spring and summer chinook don't have. A timeline published in the federal plan predicts possible extinction of those species starting in 2008 - the same year the current recovery draft provides for definitive action, such as breaching, by agencies.

Tribal representatives, who have been working with federal agencies for six years to reach a definitive action plan, are clear they are not going to sit still for a "too little too late" program.

"You have made the wrong decision on the four Snake River dams," Minthorn said. "Change it now, before it is too late - for the salmon, for us, and for those who will inherit the legacy you leave behind."