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Group sues to delist steelhead

By MITCH LIES Oregon Staff Writer

An organization representing Washington and Oregon farmers March 4 sued the National Marine Fisheries Service claiming it illegally listed Columbia and Willamette River steelhead as threatened.

Bolstered by a recent decision from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Pacific Legal Foundation is arguing in a suit filed in U.S. District Court in Yakima, Wash., that NMFS wrongfully excluded hatchery-raised steelhead when calculating steelhead populations in the lower and middle Columbia River and upper Willamette River.

The suit seeks to remove federal protection for three steelhead species.

“For too long, Washington and Oregon residents have paid a high price to protect fish that don’t need protection,” managing attorney for the foundation Russ Brooks said.

Pointing to the federal appeals court decision of Feb. 24, Brooks argued that NMFS should throw out the listings until it recalculates fish populations based on what he termed “sound science.”

The appeals court upheld U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan’s decision that hatchery-raised coastal coho salmon could not be distinguished from wild stock when calculating coho populations. Hogan wrote in his opinion that hatchery stock interbreed with wild stock, share the same rivers, habitat and seasonal runs.

The foundation filed the steelhead suit just weeks before a self-imposed NMFS deadline to release results of a fish population review.

The new numbers will include hatchery with wild stock in determining populations for all 27 listed salmonids, said Janet Sears, a spokeswoman for NMFS.

NMFS began the review after Hogan made his Sept. 10, 2001, ruling in the Alsea Valley Alliance case.

“That status review has been going on now for almost three years, and quite frankly, there is no end in sight,” Brooks said. “What I’m hearing is they are going to miss that March 31 deadline and set a new deadline. Meanwhile, my clients are sitting around suffering from these listings.”

Brooks said he filed the suit in Washington because three of the case’s five clients are from Washington and two of the three species inhabit waters in Washington.

Based on recent history, he said he likes his chances.

“The district of Oregon’s decision doesn’t control what a Washington court does,” he said, “but the district hit the nail on the head in reaching a reasonable decision and another court facing the same issues would be hard-pressed not to follow.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation is representing the Washington State Grange, Oregon State Grange, Washington Farm Bureau, Alsea Valley Alliance and the Building Industry Association of Washington.

Mitch Lies is based in Salem. His e-mail address is mlies@capitalpress.com.

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