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Attorney James Buchal argues in support of a delisting petition on coho salmon before the March meeting of the California Fish and Game Commission. Buchal, representing timber interests, tried unsuccessfully to convince the commission that coho populations south of San Francisco should be delisted as an endangered species.
Fish and Game Commission denies coho delisting petition
Arcata hearing draws supporters and opponents of coho protections

Bob Krauter, Capital Press California Editor, 3/1/07

ARCATA, Calif. - For a second time, the California Fish and Game Commission has rejected a delisting petition on coho salmon south of San Francisco as an endangered species, in apparent defiance of a court order. The 3-0 vote came today after 90 minutes of public testimony at the commission's March meeting in Arcata on the campus of Humboldt State University.

James Buchal, a Portland attorney for Big Creek Lumber Company and the Central Coast Forest Association, which first brought the delisting petition, argued that the evidence shows the coho is not a native species in the region and efforts to restore its population are unwarranted, especially in light of the state's budget constraints.

"The question is should the state spend its limited resources trying to grow coho in this region without success since 1906? One estimate is that it will cost $250 million dollars," Buchal said. "We're here to help you not spend $250 million dollars to protect a species because it won't work. "

Buchal stated that coho salmon in the region have come from hatchery-raised fish. Because of drought and flood patterns, and other factors, native coho have not thrived.

"To maintain populations of coho salmon, you have got to run hatcheries," he said. "That is not consistent with self-sustaining, natural populations that can survive. All we are asking is that you accept the petition for full status review, no changes in existing coho protections and to think ---- does it make sense to lock the State of California into a fatally doomed restoration program."

The Fish and Game Commission first rejected the delisting petition in 2005. Buchal's clients challenged the case in court and received a favorable ruling last September that the commission had erred in its rejection.

Officials of the California Department of Fish and Game objected to the points raised by Buchal at the Arcata meeting and said the coho deserve state protection.

"We respectfully recommend that the commission reject this petition," said CDFG's Stephanie Tom Coupe. "Despite the modeling, they do exist south of San Francisco. They are endangered species and they are afforded protections wherever they are found."

The coho was listed as a state endangered species in 1995 and a federally threatened species the following year. In 2005, the federal listing was elevated to endangered.

Dr. Kenneth Gobalet, a biology professor at California State University-Bakersfield, buttressed Coupe's remarks and said archeological studies he has done show that coho salmon bones existed in the region. Speaking in a rising tone and visibly shaking in anger that his work on coho populations was being challenged in a fishery publication, Gobalet lashed out at the petitioners.

"I am distressed that my work has been distorted," he said.

Michele Dias, counsel and vice president of environmental affairs for the California Forestry Association, spoke in support of the petition and reminded the commissioners of the Sacramento County Superior Court order in September 2006.

"The court held that there is sufficient evidence for delisting and that the commission erred in rejecting the petition and it should have accepted it for consideration," Dias said. "Don't repeat the same mistake you made when you first rejected the petition."

Following the public testimony, none of the three commissioners present asked questions or made any further comment. Commissioner Jim Kellogg moved to reject the petition.

"I was here when we made the decision originally. I don't see any reasonable evidence to warrant a delisting at this time and I would like to make a motion that the Commission did not find sufficient evidence that the petition was warranted and that the Commission go on record to deny the petition," Kellogg said. With a second from new commissioner, R. Judd Hanna, the petition was rejected on a unanimous vote.

Santa Cruz timberland owner Katharine Moore and current president of the Central Coast Forest Association, expressed frustration.

"What this does is put all of those protections in place on all of the creeks that don't need to be there if the salmon aren't there. It adds to the paperwork in terms of incidental take permits and other things that add to our bills on timber harvesting, a whole new layer of costs," Moore said. "It is getting to the point where putting together a timber harvest plan to thin out timber is prohibitive. You are backed into a corner."

James Buchal said that the next step is to go back to court to press the commission to take up the petition and study the matter further.

"They are breaching the law by rejecting the petition and so they are thumbing their nose at the court and saying that they will breach the law again," Buchal said. "So it is back to court and there is a hearing scheduled on March 9 to hold them in contempt of court for stalling. We'll see where that goes."

The Fish and Game Commission also took testimony regarding a delist petition, backed by the Department of Fish and Game and supported by the California Forestry Association, to remove the Siskiyou Mountains Salamander as a threatened species.

The commission is expected to place the salamander petition on the agenda of its April meeting in Bodega Bay for a vote.

"CFA members own forestlands and provide habitat for the salamander," Michele Dias said. "Based on their knowledge and the department's scientific data, we support the department's delisting petition and remind you that you have the authority to delist, thereby freeing up limited resources to protect species that truly need it."
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