Endangered Species Act

Obama administration to skeptical judge: Bush's salmon-rescue plan is A-OK

To highlight yet another example of how the Obama administration's environmental policies don't always look that different from the Bush administration's, note that today the National Marine Fisheries Service tried to assure a skeptical federal judge that a Bush-era salmon-rescue plan was just fine -- even though it ruled out disabling dams on the Snake River.

For years, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland has been ruling that the Bush administration's blueprint to bring back struggling salmon runs on the Snake and Columbia rivers just didn't measure up. When environmentalists, tribes, sportfishing interests and the state of Oregon complained that the Obama-era Fisheries Service plan was no better than Bush's, Redden gave the agency three months to review the plan.

A pivotal question is whether four dams on the Snake River -- which produced about 5 percent of the Pacific Northwest's electricity, last I checked -- should be "breached," meaning partially removed to let the river flow more freely again. The dams and the changes they cause in the river kill some of the small salmon migrating to sea there.

After a three-month review, the Fisheries Service said the Bush-era plan needed only minor modifications. It refused to start the years-long planning process that would be required to breach the dams. It didn't even budge on a lesser step: letting more water flow through the dams without producing electricity -- "spill" -- to help the fish.

The best quote of the day -- and even this is a tired analogy, bearing witness to the tenure of this controversy -- came from Nicole Cordan, a campaigner with Save Our Wild Salmon:

Snake, Columbia rivers' salmon recovery plan nearing approval

U.S. District Judge James Redden lauded the Obama Administration's tweaks to his predecessor's deficient plan for improving salmon runs along the dam-studded Columbia and Snake Rivers.

The Idaho Statesman reports Redden said just "a little bit of work" would be needed to win approval for the federal hydroelectric system's salmon recovery plan along those rivers, whose power lights up most of the Pacific Northwest, after more than 10 years in court.

But Redden also said that the legality of the plan -- known as the biological option or BioP -- could be challenged unless the Obama Administration formally adds its changes to the plan or puts the science behind them through public review.  The Endangered Species Act forces the government to study and mitigate the impact of its hydroelectric system on salmon.

The state of Oregon, the Spokane and Nez Perce tribes and environmentalists disagree with the plan, which wouldn't breach four Snake River dams that have ravaged salmon runs unless the salmon were right on the brink of extinction.  The states of Washington and Idaho and other tribes back the plan and its more than $1 billion in federal recovery efforts over the next decade.

The Oregonian reports the federal government is so intent on hording all the power produced by the dams that it doesn't want to continue spilling water over the tops during peak salmon runs, despite their proven success at helping recover salmon runs by easing their downstream passage.

Brown pelicans delisted -- now what?

Hey folks, this was supposed to post yesterday, but...here goes.

I grew up playing in the water of the Gulf of Mexico, where I watched brown pelicans dive for mullet -- the same mullet my grampa and I liked to catch.  We had our cast nets fringed with weights.  The pelicans had their mighty beaks and amazing expanding throats.  Game on.

But it wasn't my grampa's mullet-catching prowess that nearly did the brown pelican in.  No, it was DDT, a pesticide that weakened brown pelican eggs so much that they couldn't hatch.

Anyone who's seen a pelican flatten itself into a three-pronged bullet before plunging into the water can attest to the bird's glory, which was nearly decimated by the chemicals draining from the fields of our great nation.

Banning DDT in 1972 helped take the brown pelican off the endangered species list from Texas to Florida in the mid 1980s, but it took another two decades for Southern California's brown pelican population to recover enough to get off that list -- yesterday.  Protecting the pelican's nesting sites and habitat also helped its recuperation.

Government officials and environmentalists alike hailed the endangered species act's success in bringing brown pelicans back from the brink of extinction.

Sea otters thrown first safety net since endangered listing four years ago

Years after being placed on the Endangered Species List, the threatened sea otters of southwest Alaska have finally been given some habitat protection, writesMary Pemberton of the Associated Press.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 5,855 acres of critical habitat for the federally protected sea otters of southwest Alaska. This includes nearshore areas in the Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea and Alaska Peninsula, where much of the species' most vital shallow cuisine thrives.

This is big news for environmental groups who have been fighting for nearly a decade to save the rapidly declining keystone species, which many believe plays a critical role in the health of marine ecosystems. In August 2000, the Center for Biological Diversity first petitioned to have Alaska's sea otters listed under the Endangered Species Act, but it was not until 2005 -- and two lawsuits later -- that sea otters in southwest Alaska finally received that protection. By that time, some regions had experienced up to 90 percent declines in otter populations. Alaska is currently estimated to have about 90 percent of the world's population of northern sea otters.

What's important to note is that the Endangered Species Act requires habitat protection from the moment an animal is first listed.

Northwest orcas more dependent on salmon than we thought, say scientists

New findings, which mirror what environmentalists have been saying for years, have concluded that the Northwest's prized resident orcas rely more heavily on chinook salmon than previously thought, reports Joe Rojas-Burke of The Oregonian.

Researchers have found direct parallels between plummeting chinook salmon counts and declining killer whale numbers as far back as the 1990s, despite relatively abundant populations of other whale cuisine. And perhaps not coincidentally, the whales prospects improved significantly in years when chinook salmon returns were faring better.

Scientists believe the new evidence may make a case for limiting salmon fishing to safeguard the future of the San Juan's killer whales, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act. This is sure to make interesting reading for U.S. District Court Judge James Redden, who is currently mulling over the Obama administration's recently released Columbia and Snake River salmon plan -- which some say downplays the risk of declining chinook populations on resident orcas.

-- Natasha Walker

Rita Hibbard's picture

Yellowstone grizzlies are back on the Endangered Species list

Grizzly bears - those iconic symbols of Yellowstone Park - are back on the Endangered Species list.

The same judge who earlier this month put a green light on the Montana and Idaho wolf hunts said the big bears in the Yellowstone area were wrongly removed from the Endangered Species Act protections in 2007. U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy of Montana said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not adequately consider the impacts of global warming and other factors on the whitebark pine nuts, which are an important food source for the grizzly bears, reports Jill Kuraitis in New West. That's two years after federal officials announced the bears' "amazing" recovery.

There are about 500 grizzlies remaining in the Yellowstone area in and around Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. A coalition of environmental groups brought the suit to relist the bears.

In its Greenspace blog, the Los Angeles Times noted the judge's comments that the federal monitoring program designed to maintain the bear population at more than 500 bears has no enforcement mechanism in case numbers decline.

"Even if the monitoring were enforceable, the monitoring itself does nothing to protect the grizzly bear population," the judge wrote. "Instead, there is only a promise of future, unenforceable actions.

-- Rita Hibbard

Climate change pits Inuit, wildlife advocates against each other on polar bear hunting

What wildlife advocates see as a well-meant U.S. effort to help preserve the polar bear in the face of global warming effectively translates into being fired and losing a cultural icon all at the same time for the  Inuit.

Because the United States decided to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act, polar bear skins no longer are allowed to be imported. That's led to a dearth of the American big-game hunters who previously paid the Inuit -- also known as Eskimos -- many thousands of dollars to serve as hunting guides. Collectively, it was thought to be a $3 million-a-year business  and it helped natives who don't have a lot of ways to bring in cash.

Charles J. Hanley's dispatch from Canada's Northwest Territories for the Associated Press takes on heart-rending quality as you read on, with an elderly Inuit man exclaiming:

The ice is melting I'm always wondering, 'What the hell they going to do if there's no more ice in the Arctic?'

Ironically, some native communities are actually seeing more bears now. That, scientists say, is because the bears don't have as much ice to roam on, and so are more likely to be near where people live and hunt.  

Some other native communities say they aren't seeing as many bears as they used to. Scientists acknowledge that trying to count the bears is a dicey affair because they are so far-flung and live in such difficult weather conditions. But, Erik Born, Danish chairman of the IUCN/SSC Polar Bear Specialist Group, observed:

It's not rocket science. An animal population losing its home rapidly means to me they will be in bad shape.

-- Robert McClure

Obama team witholds scientists' names in Columbia Basin salmon plan

Just two days ago, InvestigateWest reported that environmentalists were unhappy with the Obama administration's barely tweaked version of a Bush-era rescue plan for critically endangered salmon of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The administration, including former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who as commerce secretary is boss of the agency responsible for salmon  recovery, has said its updated plan is backed by "sound science."

So now environmentalists are asking: Who are these scientists, anyway? So far, no one's saying.

As part of its review process, the administration called on independent scientists to comment on the plan, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. But the names of these scientists have not yet been released. Gorman said he knew there had been some discussion about privacy issues, but he did not know how the situation was being resolved. He referred us to Fisheries Service contact David Miller in Washington, D.C., who has not yet returned an InvestigateWest phone call.

Save Our Wild Salmon, an alliance of salmon advocates including enviros, fishermen, scientists and others, has closely followed the Columbia Basin salmon story and recently released its own "Top 10" list of ways to improve the 2008 plan -- many of which did not make it into the updated version.

Natalie Brandon, communications director for Save Our Wild Salmon, said the group has asked repeatedly for the names of the scientists involved in the plan, and the analysis that led to their decision.