SALMON WARS IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

Posted on November 24, 2008 by Kevin Beaton

Each year thousands of salmon and steelhead protected under the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) migrate up and down the Columbia River and its tributaries and into the Pacific Ocean as part of the species’ cycle of life. Seemingly, each year armies of lawyers migrate to federal court to argue whether the federal government is carrying out its obligations to protect these species under the ESA. “As part of the modern cycle of life in the Columbia River system, each year brings litigation to the federal courts of the Northwest over the operation of the Federal Columbia River System (“FRCPS”) and, in particular, the effects of system operation on the anadromous salmon and steelhead protected by the Endangered Species Act.” National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service, 422 F.3d 782 (9th Cir. 2005).

            2008 is no exception as the National Wildlife Federation, the state of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe have again filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court of Oregon against the federal government for allegedly failing to carry out their obligations under the ESA in the operation of the FRCPS. The precipitating event for the 2008 lawsuit, is a 2008 Biological Opinion authored by NOAA Fisheries pursuant to Section 7 of the ESA opining that if the action agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“COE”) and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (“BOR”) carry out a comprehensive reasonable and prudent alternative (“RPA”) then jeopardy to the listed species and adverse modification to critical habitat will be avoided.

 

The portion of the FRCPS that is at issue in the 2008 litigation is a series of fourteen (14) federal hydropower dams authorized by Congress on the Columbia and Lower Snake Rivers which are operated by the COE and BOR. Congress has directed that the dams are for multiple uses including providing power to the Northwest, irrigation, transportation, recreation, flood control and protection of fish. The stakes are high in the litigation, if some of the dams are substantially modified, or breached as some Plaintiffs are advocating, industries, rate-payers and communities reliant upon the multiple uses of the FRCPS will be significantly affected. Thirteen separate salmon and steelhead species that live out a portion of their life cycle in the Columbia River and its tributaries have been listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA.

            The federal government’s attempt to operate the FRCPS in compliance with ESA has been mired in litigation for some 15 years. The science and the law surrounding the FRCPS’ compliance with the ESA is complex. Like 2008, the precipitating event for past litigation has been a § 7 consultation between NOAA fisheries and the COE and BOR and a Biological Opinion (BiOp) and Incidental Take Statement. In recent litigation the federal government has not fared well. For example the 2000 BiOp found that the FRCPS operation did jeopardize certain listed species but that jeopardy could be avoided if off-site mitigation and hatchery initiatives were implemented. The court found the 2000 BiOp was invalid as NOAA could not rely upon off-site and non-federal actions that were not reasonably certain to occur as an RPA. See NWF v. NMFS, 254 F.Supp. 2d 1196 (D.Or 2003).

            The federal government tried again with a 2004 BiOP which found no jeopardy to listed species and no adverse modification to critical habitat. The 2004 BiOp was different from prior BiOps in so far as NOAA Fisheries attempted to segregate the effects of the existence of the 14 dams from the operation of the dams claiming that only the operation of the dams was discretionary and subject to Section 7 consultation. The lower Court struck down the 2004 BiOp on a variety of grounds finding that NOAA improperly separated the existence and operation of the dams in their § 7 consultation, NOAA did not properly take into consideration how the operation of the dams would affect recovery of the listed species and their critical habitat and that the actions relied upon were too uncertain to occur. The Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower Court decision in its entirety. See National Wildlife Federation v. National Marine Fisheries Service, 524 F.3d 917 (9th Cir. 2008). The Ninth Circuit did note that in considering the affect of the agency action on the potential recovery of the species in connection with a Section 7 consultation, NOAA Fisheries did not have to first develop a recovery plan consistent with the requirements of Section 4(f) of the ESA.

            While the appeal was pending before the Ninth Circuit, NOAA Fisheries under some prodding from the lower Court embarked upon an unprecedented collaboration with the four affected states (Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana) and eight Indian tribes to reach consensus on the appropriate methodologies to evaluate the effects of the FRCPS on listed species, operational modifications focusing on each of the listed species and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding commitments to the Tribes to carry out mitigation. In developing the 2008 BiOp and RPA, NOAA Fisheries also adopted a “trending to recovery standard” in order to fulfill the directive from the Court concerning the evaluation of survival and “recovery” in a Section 7 consultation. The 2008 BiOp finds that operation of the FRCPS for the next ten (10) years with implementation of the comprehensive RPA will avoid jeopardy to the thirteen species, avoid adverse modification to critical habitat and future recovery of the protected species will not be compromised by implementation of the RPA.

            The Plaintiffs quickly challenged the 2008 BiOp arguing it is legally and technically flawed and more of the same. The federal defendants, a trade association, three states (Washington, Idaho and Montana) and one Tribe argue that based on Court directives the 2008 BiOp got it right this time. The Defendants argue that Plaintiffs challenge is nothing more than a disagreement on the science and that the court should defer to NOAA Fisheries on these issues. Of interest to Clean Water Act attorneys, one of the Plaintiffs (“NWF”) argues that the incidental take statement (“ITS”) issued as part of the 2008 BiOp is equivalent to a “permit” under § 401 of the Clean Water Act and therefore requires water quality certification from the states. If the Plaintiff prevails on this novel theory, it means that potentially four states and three Tribes would need to issue a 401 certification that the ITS will comply with state and tribal water quality standards before the ITS would go into effect.

            A preliminary injunction and summary judgment hearings are set in January 2009. If the Court finds that the disputes surrounding 2008 BiOp are basically scientific disputes a recent Ninth Circuit case could be beneficial to the federal defendants. See, Lands Council v. McNair, 537 F.2d 981 (9th Cir. 2008). In Lands Council, the court noted that federal courts should defer to the scientific judgments of a federal agency when reviewing agency action under the Administrative Act Procedures. Stay tuned to the outcome of this litigation to see if the “cycle of life” of litigation in FRCPS continues or takes a breather to give the federal government, the states and tribes a breather to implement the 2008 BiOp.



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