PORTLAND, Ore. -- Contrary to
findings by federal scientists, Oregon
officials have concluded that Oregon coast
coho salmon are not at risk and thus no longer
need protection under the Endangered Species
If U.S. officials accept Oregon's conclusion
-- outlined in a draft report -- the state
probably would take over management of the
prized fish and become the first step in a
drive by the Bush administration to emphasize
local control over wildlife issues.
Such a shift would reshape national policy on
The listing of coho in 1998 spurred a long and
costly legal battle by coastal landowners and
timber interests opposed to restrictions on
their land. By court order, the National
Marine Fisheries Service must decide by June
14 whether to continue the coho's threatened
status under the species act.
Federal scientists eight months ago proposed
that coastal coho remain listed as threatened.
But Bush administration officials have
encouraged Oregon's effort to go it alone,
hoping to prove that the U.S. government can
turn over to states the responsibility for
protecting a species and resolving conflicts
with property owners.
"Something as visible as coho salmon can
capture people's imagination about what can be
accomplished," said James Connaughton,
chairman of the White House Council on
Environmental Quality, after meeting with
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski in 2003.
The U.S. government has never removed a
federally listed species from protection and
given that responsibility to a state.
Kulongoski, a Democrat, forged an agreement
with Connaughton and federal fisheries
authorities, receiving $250,000 to advance the
Many conservation groups say coho still face a
multitude of serious threats, from logging and
agriculture to urban development.
"We don't want coho to stay on the Endangered
Species list, but we want them on the road to
recovery before they are delisted," said Jason
Miner of Oregon Trout, a conservation group.
Oregon officials are racing to complete a full
analysis of coho and the adequacy of the state
protection effort in time to influence the
federal listing decision in June.
The state's new report carries a notable
finding: It suggests that coho may have never
been in danger of going extinct, based on how
the fish weathered the 1990s, when as many as
99 percent of juvenile coho in a given
migration year failed to survive at sea.
Contrary to expectations that wild fish would
continue to decline, the report said
populations instead stabilized at a low but
"It is one of their safety valves to avoid
extinction," said Ed Bowles, an administrator
with the Oregon Department of Fish and
Conservationists say Oregon's analysis ignores
the loss of habitat that once supported annual
runs of a million or more coastal coho. About
a third of the coastal wetlands once used by
coho have been drained for farms, towns and
roads; logging has altered about 95 percent of
streams in Oregon's coastal forests.
"The key is, are the fish going to remain
viable while we tackle these tough habitat
challenges," Bowles said. "Our assessment
indicates they have a high likelihood of
The governor's office maintains that the
state's voluntary and grass-roots approach --
rather than federal enforcement -- is the best
way to move forward.
In recent years, Oregon has completed hundreds
of restoration projects in coastal watersheds.
The state has spent tens of millions in
lottery money on projects such as streamside
tree planting and removal of impassable
culverts and dikes to open access for
Wild coho runs have surged above 200,000 each
year since 2000, after years rarely exceeding
Some conservationists say it's too early to
judge the effectiveness of Oregon's effort.
They say the recent rebound is largely the
result of an ocean climate shift favorable to
Pete Lawson, a biologist leading the coho
recovery team for the National Marine
Fisheries Service, said estimating the current
viability of the fish is hampered by limited
knowledge of climate effects and habitat
"The state came down on one side of the fence;
you could very easily come down on the other
side of the fence," Lawson said. The crux of
the matter, he said, is judging the likely
impact of land use practices, regulation of
logging, population growth trajectories, and
changing ocean conditions over the next 50 to
Jan. 28, 2005
(Joe Rojas-Burke is a staff writer for The
Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)