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Fisheries must take new look at coho

Salmon - A judge scraps the state-federal deal keeping the fish off the endangered list
October 10, 2007 MICHAEL MILSTEIN, The Oregonian

A federal judge Tuesday smacked down an attempt by Oregon and the federal government to keep the Oregon coast coho salmon off the endangered species list.

U.S. District Judge Garr King sided with a magistrate who earlier ruled that state and federal agencies ignored the best available science on what's happening to the coho and made it sound as if the species has a rosier future than it really does.

King's decision means the National Marine Fisheries Service gets two months to reconsider the coho's status and issue a new decision on whether the species deserves protection under the federal Endangered Species Act

Such federal protection for the fish could slow logging and other development along coastal rivers and streams where the coho spawns. It would also derail an unusual agreement between Gov. Ted Kulongoski and the Bush administration that aimed to leave the coastal coho in the state's hands.

They billed the deal as a model partnership between state and federal authorities to rebuild a troubled species without resorting to rigid endangered species restrictions.

It grew out of former Gov. John Kitzhaber's Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds, a state initiative that sought to keep coho off the endangered list. The plan restricted coho fishing and encouraged loggers and others to help repair damaged salmon habitat.

More than a million coho once filled coastal rivers and streams, but the species has since declined to a small fraction of those historic numbers.

The National Marine Fisheries Service decided last year that the Oregon coast coho did not need federal protection, based in part on an analysis by Oregon biologists who concluded coho are more resilient than earlier thought.

The state's analysis hinged on a novel theory that coho fare better when their numbers fall to low levels. But that idea was soundly criticized by federal fisheries scientists who said small populations face higher risk of extinction and concluded Oregon's argument "does not pass the red face test."

They said Oregon's analysis cited data from specific streams in years that supported its argument but omitted data from other years.

Several fishing and environmental groups also took issue with the argument and sued.

In July, U.S. Magistrate Judge Janice M. Stewart sided with those groups, finding serious flaws in Oregon's argument and the federal decision to leave Oregon coast coho off the endangered list.

She said it did not consider the best available science.

Since Stewart was a magistrate, not a district judge, her ruling was in the form of a recommendation. It required approval from a judge such as King. King gave that approval Tuesday, even though state and federal attorneys urged him not to.

King gave the federal government 60 days to redo its listing decision for the coho based on the best available science. The government could still appeal King's decision, though.

Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said Tuesday that the government had not decided whether to appeal.

Michael Milstein: 503-294-7689; michaelmilstein@ news.oregonian.com

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