September 17, 2009

Obama team witholds scientists’ names in Columbia Basin salmon plan

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Just two days ago, InvestigateWest reported that environmentalists were unhappy with the Obama administration’s barely tweaked version of a Bush-era rescue plan for critically endangered salmon of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The administration, including former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who as commerce secretary is boss of the agency responsible for salmon  recovery, has said its updated plan is backed by “sound science.”

So now environmentalists are asking: Who are these scientists, anyway? So far, no one’s saying.

As part of its review process, the administration called on independent scientists to comment on the plan, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. But the names of these scientists have not yet been released. Gorman said he knew there had been some discussion about privacy issues, but he did not know how the situation was being resolved. He referred us to Fisheries Service contact David Miller in Washington, D.C., who has not yet returned an InvestigateWest phone call.

Save Our Wild Salmon, an alliance of salmon advocates including enviros, fishermen, scientists and others, has closely followed the Columbia Basin salmon story and recently released its own “Top 10” list of ways to improve the 2008 plan — many of which did not make it into the updated version.

Natalie Brandon, communications director for Save Our Wild Salmon, said the group has asked repeatedly for the names of the scientists involved in the plan, and the analysis that led to their decision. They have yet to receive them, she said.

The group believes the updated plan, in many ways, shrugs off the suggestions of citizens and  independent scientists not appointed by the government. Brandon told InvestigateWest:

Had they really wanted to inject some sound science, they would have taken a very different approach to creating this plan. They weren’t really interested in talking with some of the stakeholders. It wasn’t a very transparent process like we would expect from this administration.

Kim Murphy of the LA Times reported that conservation groups were disappointed that many of the most hotly contested components of the Bush administration’s 2008 Columbia Basin plan were left intact, with some saying that the decades-long struggle to craft a satisfactory plan has been derailed by energy-hungry politicians, who often ignore the impact of hydroelectric dams on endangered salmon and steelhead.  Hydropower dams provide a substantial amount of the region’s electricity and an important navigation route for production industry.

The idea of possibly removing one or more of four power-generating dams is considered as a possible last resort in the government’s new plan, requiring U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin studying the possibility next year — but only if specific salmon runs drop to within 10 percent of all-time lows. Other mitigation strategies require similar population “triggers,” including a separate rapid response plan that would kick in if, and only if, the fish drop to the levels seen the year they were listed on the Endangered Species Act, reported Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman.

Critics say the recovery efforts are not preventative enough, and are based on weak standards — requiring only that the salmon be “trending toward recovery.”

So far, both previous salmon recovery plans have “failed to satisfy the biological and legal requirements of the Endangered Species Act,” said U.S. District Judge Redden, who has long presided over this case. Now all eyes are on Redden again as he reviews the rewritten plan. No word yet on when to expect his response.

— Natasha Walker

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