Water | Ecotrope

Protecting landowners with a fish designation

Ecotrope | May 23, 2011 9:08 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:38 p.m.

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Round Butte Dam on the Deschutes River

Round Butte Dam on the Deschutes River

Landowners on Central Oregon’s Deschutes River and its tributaries would have at least 12 years without facing water-diversion limits or other restrictions triggered by the presence of a newly reintroduced steelhead that’s on the endangered species list.

A federal agency Monday announced it was taking this unusual step as part of the reintroduction of steelhead in tributaries above Round Butte Dam near Madras, Ore. The hatchery-raised fish are being reintroduced as part of an effort to help recover Middle Columbia steelhead.

Fisheries officials had already spent several years preparing for the first juvenile steelhead to be reintroduced when that population was listed in 2006 as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. Fisheries officials were already planning to reestablish the steelhead in the Deschutes and its tributaries when the steelhead was listed. Juveniles were first released in Deschutes tributaries in 2007.

Under the original Endangered Species Act, “take rules” – restrictions on activities that harm a protected species — would be imposed immediately after the appearance of a federally listed steelhead, said Scott Carlin of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Services.

But an amendment to the act allows the government to designate a species as “experimental,” so such restrictions can be put on hold. Monday’s proposal would give that designation to the Deschutes’ hatchery-raised steelhead. If it’s adopted, Carlin said, the government will have the leeway to provide legal protection to anyone who harms the fish, so long as they aren’t doing anything unlawful.

In other words, Carlin said, landowners, municipalities, and others who might otherwise be hit with a new set of restrictions can carry on with their currently lawful practices, which include drawing water from the Deschutes and its tributaries for irrigation and other uses.

“It reduces the conflict and it can even encourage partnerships to use these rule to reintroduce species,” he said.

Currently, no such “take rules” have been drawn up to protect threatened steelhead in the Deschutes. If the NOAA Fisheries proposal is adopted, none would be imposed for 12 years – with the clock starting when the first adult steelhead returns from the ocean and swims back up the Deschutes River past the Round Butte Dam. Carlin said he expects the first adult steelhead to reach that point in 2012.

The Deschutes steelhead’s reintroduction is a condition of a new federal hydropower license for the Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric project on the Deschutes River. Portland General Electric Co. and the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation are the licensees for that project.

NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comments on the proposed “experimental species” designation. Comments must be received by July 18 at www.regulations.gov, by fax, or through the mail.

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