U.S. District Court Judge James Redden ruled today that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service failed for the third time in ten years to produce a legal and scientifically adequate plan to protect imperiled Columbia-Snake River salmon from extinction. The harm to these species has been largely caused by operation of the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. Today’s court action is a watershed moment for fishing and conservation groups, the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Spokane Tribe, all of which opposed the federal biological opinion, or BiOp, in court.
In deciding the case, the court wrote, “The history of the Federal Defendant’s lack of, or at best, marginal compliance with the procedural and substantive requirements of the ESA … has been laid out in prior Opinions and Orders in this case and is repeated here only where relevant.” The court went on call the federal defendants’ plan “neither a reasonable, nor a prudent, course of action.”
“Today is a victory for the nation,” said Trip Van Noppen, President of Earthjustice, the public interest law firm that represented fishing and conservation groups in the case. “But the work has only just begun. In the wake of the worst recession the nation has experienced since the Great Depression, there’s a simple path forward that would create thousands of jobs for a small investment. Taking out the four dams that strangle the lower Snake River would bring millions of dollars from restored salmon runs to communities from coastal California to Alaska and inland to Idaho. Let’s reject the path that continues wasting money on failed salmon technical fixes and embrace a solution that could set an example for the rest of the nation.”
This is the third time Judge Redden has found a BiOp for the Columbia-Snake Basin inadequate and illegal. Today, salmon populations are critically low, lingering near just 1 percent of their historic levels.
In finding the current plan’s heavy reliance on unidentified and uncertain habitat actions illegal, the court wrote: “Coupled with the significant uncertainty surrounding the reliability of NOAA Fisheries' habitat methodologies, the evidence that habitat actions are falling behind schedule, and that benefits are not accruing as promised, NOAA Fisheries' approach to these issues is neither cautious not rational.”
“The judge’s decision is a victory for wildlife, taxpayers, and the fishing industry,” said John Kostyack, Executive Director, Wildlife Conservation and Global Warming, National Wildlife Federation. “Protecting Columbia-Snake River salmon protects fishing jobs, saves taxpayers billions of dollars, and helps preserve the outdoor heritage of the Northwest.”
Among those hit hardest by the Columbia-Snake salmon crisis are commercial, sport, recreational and tribal fishermen. Repeated fishery closures and cutbacks in recent years have harmed river and coastal family businesses and livelihoods, and fishing groups have been at the forefront of this legal battle for decades.
“Now is the time for the Obama Administration to walk the talk on real salmon solutions,” said Zeke Grader, Executive Director of Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). “As this ruling highlights, the federal government has spent nearly 20 years spending enormous sums of money foolishly by doing all the wrong stuff. Facing the problem squarely, including potential removal of the four fish-killing dams on the lower Snake River, will create many thousands more jobs, revive the fishing industry, save billions of dollars for taxpayers, and lead in the development of clean, renewable, more efficient energy. What we need most now is for this Administration to lead us to those solutions, not just bury its head in the sand in denial as has so often happened in the past."
Endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead tackle a migration like no other salmon on earth. Some swim more than 900 miles and climb almost 7,000 feet to reach their spawning grounds—scaling eight dams along the way. In addition to the amazing journey these fish make, their likelihood of surviving the coming changes from global warming makes their protection and restoration all the more urgent, and makes the BiOp’s failure to adequately address climate change all the more distressing.
“We applaud the court for keeping a solid eye on the science and the law,” said Sierra Club Executive Director, Michael Brune. “The cool, high elevation wilderness watersheds of Central Idaho, Southeast Washington, and Northeast Oregon are a virtual Noah’s Ark for salmon and steelhead in a climate changing world."