Today’s petition for endangered species protection for Klamath River chinook came from groups that have opted out of the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreements - the negotiated settlements that balance agricultural, hydropower, fishing, environmental, socioeconomic and tribal interests in the basin.
It also seems to illustrate the divide between two points of view on protecting Klamath River salmon.
Glenn Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said his group opted for the out-of-court Klamath settlement agreements because they promise the future removal of four dams on the river – as well as water and habitat improvements for fish.
“This (petition to list Klamath chinook) has been in the wind for years,” Spain said. “The primary concern is the spring chinook runs, which have been all but wiped out by the dams. What this is really is an effort by some of the organizations that have opposed the Klamath Water Restoration Agreement to try to craft an alternative. The alternative will not work.”
But Ani Kame’enui of Oregon Wild, one of the four groups petitioning for the chinook listing, said the Klamath agreements sacrifice too many protections for fish and wildlife to help farmers and dam operators, and they’re still far from final. They’re contingent on Congress approving $500 million in funding, and the feds are still studying the impacts of dam removal. Her group was initially party to the agreements but later backed out.
“It’s probably not accurate to say the listing is a replacement for or an alternative to the KBRA,” she said. “The KBRA is really complex and remains a pretty controversial document. Not everyone supporting restoration of salmon agrees with the KBRA. The listing could be added to any aspect of the KBRA because it’s still pending and it has a long way to go before we would see restoration components. So, it’s more additive than alternative. The agreement does not provide secure flows for fish. It doesn’t provide the security we feel we’ll be able to get under ESA.”
Spain said a court case decided in 2005 that new Endangered Species Act rules won’t affect existing hydropower licenses like the ones held by PacifiCorp on the Klamath River. That means ESA will have less of an impact on dam management in the basin.
The Klamath agreements do the single most important thing for fish in the Klamath River Basin, Spain said, and that is to promise removal of four PacifCorp dams starting in 2020.
“An ESA listing will not get you there,” Spain said. “Only the Klamath agreement can do that.”
Kame’enui said her group thinks the Endangered Species Act can do a lot to help salmon without removing dams. When coho were listed in the Klamath River, she said, the Endangered Species Act guaranteed water for the fish when they most needed it.
“We’d like to see the same done specifically for spring chinook,” she said. “Their strongholds are in some pretty remote regions, and more needs to be done in terms of habitat restoration. Logging could be done in a more sound way. Mining activities have been curtailed and should continue to be curtailed in addition to improvement of water quality.”
Does the Klamath spring chinook run still exist?
The tricky part of listing the Klamath River’s spring chinook run under the Endangered Species Act will be proving it actually is its own genetically distinct species. In the past, federal fisheries managers have lumped the spring and fall chinook into one species and decided it is not a candidate for listing.
Spain said the fall run is actually still robust by West Coast standards – the third largest with 120,000 fish returning in recent years. “Of those 60 percent are wild fish,” he said. “The agencies are not going to list one of the largest runs remaining on the coast as endangered. It’s the spring run that needs some assistance – if it continues to exist in the basin, and NMFS isn’t convinced that it does.”
The spring run arrived earlier in the year so it could travel longer distances to higher reaches of the basin, Spain said. Thus, it was essentially wiped out by the dams. That’s why Spain thinks the restoration agreements provide the best chance of reestablishing a spring run. The lingering question, he agrees, is whether those spring fish are genetically different from the ones that arrive later in the season and don’t travel as far up the watershed. But even if they are, he doesn’t think listing them under ESA will restore them, and he prefers the Klamath agreement because it keeps the controversial issue out of the courts and paves a new path forward.
“We all looked at ESA litigation and decided we’re not going to get to a fully restored river through the courts,” he said.
Kame’enui said the Klamath agreement should be able to stand alone while the National Marine Fisheries Service considers the chinook listing petition.
“If it gets in the way of it or conflicts with it I’d be worried that there are politics involved in what should be a scientific decision,” she said. “KBRA is ultimately a political document – it’s legislative – where ESA ultimately looks to science and agencies who utilize science to create protections for species on the brink.”