STEELHEAD ESCAPES ENDANGERED LIST

March 31, 2001 12:00 am

SEATTLE The economies of Curry and Del Norte counties dodged a huge bullet Friday when the National Marine Fisheries Service announced its decision not to list Klamath Mountains Province steelhead as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Fridays announcement came two years after the fisheries service withdrew a proposed listing of steelhead in the province, which includes portions of Southern Oregon and Northern California.

A federal judge overturned that decision in October and ordered the service to reconsider and announce its new decision by March 31. One day before the deadline, the service announced that the steelhead population in the province is among the more abundant in the region, making federal protection unnecessary.

Those populations include summer and winter-run steelhead from the Rogue and Klamath river basins, as well as from smaller rivers like the Chetco and Smith.

We took the courts charge very seriously, said Donna Darm, acting head of the services Northwest office in Seattle.

Weve done an exhaustive job of reevaluating this fishs status, working with biologists from the states, tribes and other federal agencies, and with an array of local fishermen, landowners and conservation groups.

We know more about this fish now than we possibly could have back in 1998.

Among the services discoveries is that the outlook for steelhead has improved measurably, making it unlikely that the species would become endangered in the foreseeable future.

Agency biologists also found far fewer harmful effects from Oregon hatcheries than previously reported. They found natural steelhead populations are more widely distributed than had been thought.

Although solid estimates for steelhead populations are still not available, agency biologists said the latest information puts the current population of Klamath Mountains Province steelhead at at least 50,000 fish, and perhaps more than 100,000.

Agency spokesman Brian Gorman said data provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife played a major role in the services decision.

He said the state agency provided good data on run size and hatchery impacts, along with computer modeling on the Rogue and other rivers.

Without Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife assistance, said Gorman, The decision would have been much tougher.

He said the decision wasnt easy, even with the data. There is never enough data, he said.

Gorman said a court appeal of the decision wouldnt be automatic. He said plaintiffs will examine the decision carefully and may decide they dont have a case.

Curry County Commissioner Lucie La Bont, who played a key role in rallying support against the listing, heard about the decision Thursday night.

This is a positive decision for our region and for the Endangered Species Act, she said.

The listing of a healthy species would have destroyed the credibility of the Endangered Species Act, and would have further devastated our local economy.

She credited state biologists Russ Stauff, Tom Satterthwaite, Bob Hooten and Jay Nicholas for their data collection and hard work.

She said it was Stauff who first told her it was not right that steelhead might be listed.

She said Stauff believes there has never been as many steelhead in the Oregon streams of the Klamath Mountain Province than there is right now. He told her the system is finite, and it is full.

La Bont said the fisheries service supported the majority decision of its Biological Review Team.

She said environmental groups should respect that decision because the team is made up of independent scientists in support of the Endangered Species Act, not political appointees.

She called the scientists on the team heavy-duty environmental people.

She said if there was any doubt in their minds, they would have erred on the side of conservation and decided to list.

It felt really, really good, said La Bont. Its been a long seven years.

She said Garth Griffin of the fisheries service also told her he cant imagine anyone appealing the decision with the team of scientists standing behind it.

La Bont said this is the second scientific victory in as many years. The Klamath Mountain Province also narrowly escaped a listing of its chinook salmon.

This is so good for our fishermen and tourist industry, and for the Endangered Species Act, she said. Weve shown twice that it can work if we have scientific data.

Jim Welter, salmon advisor to the Port of Brookings Harbor, said, Its just justification for reality. The biological rational is there.

Are we going to list everything just because someone sues? he said.

He thought it might be time to go back and argue for a separate steelhead evolutionarily significant unit, or ESU, in Oregon that wouldnt depend on fish management in California.

He said the Oregon side of the Klamath Mountains Province alone had more than enough steelhead to meet all requirements for the full ESU.

Welter said the province is the same size as the John Day ESU. He said where that ESU has 10,000 steelhead and will be delisted when it has 20,000, the Oregon side of the province has 83,000.