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Times-Standard Online - Local News
Yurok Tribe to forge on with fish kill suit

By John Driscoll The Times-Standard  1/20/05

The Yurok Tribe will likely ask a federal judge to rethink her decision to toss out a case that blamed the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Klamath Irrigation Project for the demise of tens of thousands of salmon in 2002.

The tribe says it's disappointed but unbowed after U.S. District Court Judge Saundra Armstrong threw out the case last week, saying the court couldn't enforce the federal government's trust responsibility to the tribe.

Armstrong agreed with Reclamation and Klamath farmers that the 2002 fish kill was unprecedented and that there was no way to prove it would happen again, since 2003 and 2004 did not see additional fish kills.

"We'll be asking the judge to reconsider," said Yurok Executive Director Troy Fletcher, "and if she doesn't, we're going to seriously weigh the option of appeal."

In 2001, Reclamation crimped water to most farms in its project in the Upper Klamath Basin, leading to extensive protests. The next year, a drought year, Reclamation cut water to the lower Klamath River, and 34,000 to 68,000 salmon died.

The gruesome scene drew a wave of anger from down river communities, and the tribe, California's Department of Fish and Game and later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found low flows were a main factor in the die-off.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, which intervened in the government's behalf, lauded Armstrong's decision.

"The tribe wanted the bureau to dedicate its store water to them first, and only if there was water left over could any be used by the Klamath Project's farmers," said foundation attorney Andrew Lloyd.

He said the 2001 shut-off devastated farms in the upper basin.

Millions of dollars in aid flowed to the area that year, and today, in its effort to save more water for fish in the river, Reclamation pays farmers millions a year to let farmland go fallow. The country for years has also produced a glut of potatoes -- a key crop in the basin -- for years, according to a government report released last month.

Lloyd added that the tribe was able to catch slightly more than its historical catch of salmon in 2002.

Fletcher said that viewpoint completely ignores the cultural and traditional reliance the tribe has on fish.

"The fish represent more than just a food source to the Yurok people," he said.

Fletcher said he's disappointed that the tribe was unable to produce its evidence that alleges Reclamation's policy in 2002 caused the fish kill and could, if repeated, cause one again.

But he said the tribe has an "unwavering resolve" to protect the fish in the Klamath.

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