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Coho report in line with Bush approach

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Contrary to findings by federal scientists, Oregon officials have concluded that Oregon coast coho salmon are not at risk and thus no longer in need of protection under the Endangered Species Act.

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 state in a drive by the Bush administration to emphasize local control over wildlife issues.

It would lead the way in reshaping national policy on endangered species.

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 idea.

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, conservation director for Oregon Trout.

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. A community-based plan to restore coastal coho habitat was a key initiative of former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, and watershed councils established during his tenure remain active.

Report questions listing

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 sustainable level.

"It is one of their safety valves to avoid extinction," said Ed Bowles, an administrator with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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 96 percent of streams in Oregon's coastal forests.

Paul Engelmeyer, a founder of the midcoast watershed council based in Newport, said state and federal authorities are trying "to take the heat off of agriculture and off of forestry."

Oregon officials say the state is not arguing that coho no longer need protection.

"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 remaining viable."

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.

"What we are looking for is some assurance, so landowners -- folks who are under the shadow of ESA -- gain some predictability that they can go on with daily routine activities without the threat of being challenged for a take violation," Kulongoski aide Tom Byler said in an earlier interview.

Recovery efforts add up

Kitzhaber's Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds began in 1997 as part of an effort to avoid the federal listing. Conservation groups sued, however, and forced the federal government to list the fish as "threatened."

Since then, 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 spawning.

Oregon has cut the annual fishing catch to about one-fifth of pre-1994 levels, and limited hatchery fish detrimental to wild runs.

Wild coho runs have surged above 200,000 each year since 2000, after years rarely exceeding 50,000 fish.

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 salmon survival.

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 needs.

"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 100 years.

Joe Rojas-Burke: 503-412-7073, joerojas@news.oregonian.com





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