Congress has agreed to make it easier to kill sea lions threatening fragile runs of salmon in the Northwest.
A bill approved by the House Tuesday changes the Marine Mammal Protection Act to lift some of the restrictions on killing sea lions to protect salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River and its tributaries.
Managers say sea lion populations have grown so large that they no longer need all the protections that were put in place in 1972.
As their populations have grown, more and more sea lions have been making their way up rivers and eating threatened and endangered fish at choke points like Bonneville Dam and Willamette Falls.
In the past, Oregon and Washington have gone through a long regulatory process to get federal approval to kill sea lions.
The Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act had already cleared the Senate. If it is signed into law by President Trump, it would streamline the approval process for the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho as well as several Northwest Tribes.
The Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission welcomed the news that several tribes, including the Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Nez Perce, will now have the authority to manage sea lions.
"I suspect many would wish the times were different and this legislation wasn’t necessary, said CRITFC executive director Jaime Pinkham. "But the reality is that this legislation has become necessary."
Under the bill's new rules, the total number of sea lions removed would be limited to prevent damage to sea lion populations.
Critics say sea lions are being unfairly blamed for problems that are actually caused by dams.
Fish managers say killing sea lions is the best option for saving saving certain runs of fish that can't wait for changes to dams because they're already at a high risk for extinction.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said he wants to make sure the money invested in salmon recovery isn't lost to sea lion predation.
“Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest only to see invasive sea lions take a bite out of the population,” he said.