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Agency wants salmon-protection extension

Federal officials ask for an additional six months to complete a blueprint, which is due by June
Saturday, May 01, 2004

The federal agency under a court order to redraw by June the Northwest's salmon-protection plan has asked for a six-month extension, which would delay completion of the blueprint until after the November presidential election.

In response, conservation groups have asked the court to hold the government to a Sept. 15 deadline.

The federal agency in question -- the fisheries service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- devises and schedules measures for protecting a dozen depleted salmon runs from the effects of massive hydroelectric dams throughout the Columbia Basin. Managing those stocks under the Endangered Species Act has become a sometimes controversial, difficult process that pits the needs of fish against those of cities and rural interests.

"The question should be how fast can they do it, not how slow they can do it," said Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice in Seattle, who led the case against the fisheries service. "Because of the conditions of the fish, because of the requirements of the law, we need to get this done as soon as possible."

U.S. District Judge James Redden, in a May 2003 ruling, said the government's attempt to use habitat restoration and other steps to compensate for the harm caused by dams fell short of the standards required by the Endangered Species Act. The judge originally gave the government until June 2, 2004, to reshape the plan.

Conservation groups involved in the case have generally agreed to an extension of some length to allow the federal government to develop its plan in a collaborative arrangement started last year. It has involved state fish and wildlife agencies from Oregon, Washington, Montana and Idaho, and the sovereign tribes with treaty rights to Columbia Basin salmon.

A NOAA Fisheries spokesman said the agency needs more time to do the job well.

"We're going to take a little more time, but the results are more likely to be accepted by all of the parties," said spokesman Brian Gorman.

He said election politics had nothing to do with the request for a delay.



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