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Coho are once again listed as threatened

Salmon - The federal decision follows a ruling that science didn't support delisting
February 05, 2008, The Oregonian by Gail Kinsey Hill

The federal government returned Oregon's coastal coho salmon to the endangered species list Monday, responding to a judge's ruling that scientific evidence didn't support delisting the fish.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, the federal agency charged with restoring Northwest salmon, took coastal coho off the list two years ago, based in part on an analysis by state biologists who concluded that coho are more resilient than experts thought.

The coho's relisting as a threatened species underscored the failure of the state-federal partnership to rebuild the dwindling species without the more rigid oversight of the protections in the federal Endangered Species Act.

Conservation groups applauded the decision to put coho back on the list.

But NOAA Fisheries officials lamented the apparent derailment of the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds, the state's program for restoring the coastal coho runs.

The debate over the coho's status has been going since the early 1990s, when conservation groups began petitioning for federal protections.

The species was listed as threatened between 1998 and 2004, then was taken off the list in 2006 when NOAA Fisheries ruled that the coho are "not likely to become endangered" in the foreseeable future.

Trout Unlimited challenged the decision, and last summer a U.S. district court ruled that the agency's action was "arbitrary, capricious, contrary to the best available evidence and in violation of the Endangered Species Act."

NOAA Fisheries had until Monday to respond to the court ruling.

"As the court ordered, we have made a new determination based on the information available to us in this limited time," said Bob Lohn, head of the agency's Northwest regional office in Seattle.

If the agency had been allowed to more closely examine the results of the Oregon salmon plan, Lohn said, "we may have reached a different conclusion." He praised the voluntary provisions of the Oregon plan, which relied on restoration efforts by thousands of landowners.

More than a million coho once filled coastal rivers and streams, but the species has since declined to a small fraction of those historic levels.

Conservation groups said the coho's plight demanded federal protections. The listing as a threatened species "is in the best interests of the salmon and the many people who value and depend on them," said Chris Frissell, director of science and conservation for the Pacific Rivers Council.

The federal protections could slow logging and other development along coastal rivers and streams where coho spawn.

NOAA Fisheries will designate certain areas as critical habitat and prohibit certain activities that can harm fish. The agency said effects on state and local governments and on landowners "are expected to be minor."

Gail Kinsey Hill: 503-221-8590; gailhill@ news.oregonian.com

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