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February 3, 2005
Scientists take sides in battle over coho

By Winston Ross 
The Register-Guard

FLORENCE - State scientists say that coastal coho have bounced back from their low point and no longer need federal protection - putting the state at odds with federal scientists.

The federal government listed the salmon as threatened in 1998, but property owners and timber companies promptly filed a lawsuit and got the fish removed from the Endangered Species list. Now, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is trying to get coastal coho back on the list, after a panel of scientists said that the coho still need federal protection. That attempt runs counter to the Bush administration's desire to return this, and other endangered species listings, to state control.

It also runs counter to a plan announced Wednesday by Oregon officials, who have long argued that coastal coho are better managed by the state than by the federal government. This puts the state squarely in line with the Bush administration, and directly opposed to NOAA.

The state's draft Oregon Coastal Coho Assessment calls the coho "biologically viable" and says that's likely to persist into the foreseeable future, according to state Department of Fish and Wildlife officials. That draft, which is Oregon's attempt to weigh in on NOAA Fisheries' anticipated decision this summer about whether to throw salmon back on the threatened list, is open for public comment until March 15.

"This is in stark contrast with the state's initial conclusions in 1998, when the fish were listed," said Kaitlin Lovell, salmon policy coordinator for Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit conservation organization. "There's nothing in this report that seems to change those conclusions, and yet they come up with a different answer."

Gov. Ted Kulongoski said in a press release Wednesday that state "conservation efforts are helping these remarkable fish turn the corner. It is exciting to see the fruits of our labor."

Indeed, the coho's numbers have rebounded from as low as 20,000 in the mid-1990s to as high as 200,000. But what to do with these "fruits" remains a contentious subject.

In 1997, after watching coastal coho populations drop to a tiny fraction of their prior numbers thanks to ocean conditions, overfishing and habitat destruction, the Legislature adopted the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds. It was an attempt to convince the federal government that the species didn't need Endangered Species Act protection and that Oregon could solve the problem on its own, although the plan was largely voluntary.

"The state wanted to control its own destiny," said Tom Byler, a former aide to Kulongoski who now directs the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

The federal government, however, listed the species as threatened the following year, prompting a lawsuit by the Alsea Valley Alliance. Last year, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan sided with the property owners and ordered the fish off the list.

Instead of giving in, NOAA Fisheries is opting for Round 2. The feds' final decision is due this summer, but the state hopes to prove that coho will be fine without federal oversight.

The state's draft report concludes that the species would not have become extinct despite the drop in numbers, because the fish have an internal "safety net" that stabilized the population even at their lowest levels. When ocean conditions rebounded, so did the fish, said Ed Bowles, fish division administrator for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"They retained a genetic `chutzpah,' " he said. "That ability to rebound after being held down for a period."

Ocean conditions are but one factor in fish decline and recovery, however, conservationists say. Watershed restoration projects and restrictions on fishing, land use and logging also are credited with bringing the fish back - which is why conservationists say they worry about the word "voluntary."

"Give the state full credit," Lovell said. "The Oregon Plan has done a lot of great things. ... But these fish are still at 10 percent of their historic levels. We've got to start talking about recovery."

If the fish aren't returned to the threatened list, and their future is turned over to the state - which would be an unprecedented move for a federally listed species - it would remove many of the current restrictions, along with tens of millions of dollars in annual federal funding earmarked for their protection, Lovell argued.

Beyond that, "What we have never discussed is the way Measure 37 would potentially undermine the Oregon Plan," Lovell added, since the November-approved initiative gives landowners the right to be compensated for rules that adversely affect their income.

Oregon officials counter that the Oregon Plan will still be in place and it's been shown to work.

The reason the state's research disagrees with the federal agency's is twofold, Bowles said. The state measured stability in terms of the number of adults that returned to spawn vs. the parents that produced them. If the ratio is even, the fish are stable. Also, the state looked at the chances that the number of coastal coho could fall again to the previously alarming levels, but determined that there was little chance of that happening, Bowles said.

"By no means does this assessment say `We're done taking care of fish and watersheds on the coast,' " Bowles said. "The question is, are the fish doing well enough that they don't need federal protection of the Endangered Species Act? Our assessment says they're viable. Ultimately, it's a federal call."

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