MAJORITY OF CITIZENS AGAINST PROPOSED STEELHEAD LISTING

February 24, 2001 12:00 am
A crowd packed the Gold Beach hearing. ().
A crowd packed the Gold Beach hearing. ().

GOLD BEACH Fishing guides and fishermen from Curry County, along with a few constitutionalists, and even a lone environmentalist from the Illinois Valley, packed Gold Beach City Hall to tell the federal government what they thought of a proposed steelhead listing.

Nobody liked the idea, except for the environmentalist from the Siskiyou Project, and even he didnt want the listing to affect fishermen.

Among those who didnt want Klamath Mountains Province steelhead listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act was Garth Griffin, the man patiently taking four hours of testimony.

Griffin is a fish biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. He started his career working for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Curry County.

He opened the meeting by telling those in the room that he knew most of them.

Frankly, Im disappointed that we have to be here tonight, he said.

Im personally disappointed to be here. Perhaps we shouldnt have been so optimistic on (the listing issue) going away.

As Griffin explained it, the fisheries service released a coast-wide steelhead status review in May, 1993.

Based on that, the service proposed, in March, 1995, that Klamath Mountains Province steelhead be listed as threatened.

In March, 1998, the service withdrew the proposed listing but identified steelhead as a candidate species.

The Federation of Fly Fishers and other environmental and angling groups filed suit. On Oct. 25 the U.S. District Court in Northern California ordered the service to reconsider its decision to not list steelhead.

The court said the service erred in relying on the expected effects of future conservation measures.

The service consulted with its attorneys and decided not to appeal the courts ruling. On Dec. 8, it asked the court to allow it three months to review data and gather public input.

The court rejected that request on Jan. 8 and told the service to make its listing decision by March 31.

On Feb. 12, the service proposed listing steelhead so that it could gather more information. Simultaneous public hearings were scheduled for Thursday in Gold Beach and Eureka, Calif. The public comment period will be closed on March 5.

The proposed listing includes wild summer and winter-run steelhead in coastal basins from the Elk River, near Cape Blanco, to the Klamath River in California. Rainbow trout and hatchery steelhead are not included.

Griffin said the service had pulled together a plan that warranted not listing steelhead, but the court disagreed.

Griffin tried to reassure the crowd that the earth doesnt stop spinning with a listing. Im pretty confident that Oregon fisheries dont need to be adjusted.

He said the fisheries on the Oregon side of the Klamath Mountains Province had already been adjusted and additional regulations wouldnt make sense.

The Oregon side has the healthiest steelhead populations, said Griffin, and needs the least management. He said the service could choose to not regulate the Oregon steelhead fishery.

Curry County Commissioner Lucie La Bont said, Thats what you said with the Oregon Plan. Promises have not been kept.

Because of endangered species restrictions, she said, the work window for construction projects, even for watershed restoration, is down to nothing.

I cant believe any more that there wont be any impacts from a listing, she said.

Griffin said he had been speaking about fishing impacts only. He agreed the listing could cause other problems.

He said, however, most streams are already under a coho salmon listing, so a steelhead listing should have little impact on land use.

Curry County Roadmaster Dan Crumley said a steelhead listing would make a huge difference.

He said his road projects have not resulted in accidental takes of coho because there arent many in Curry County.

Every creek we deal with down here has steelhead, he said. It will affect land use and everything else.

Griffin said, This listing does not invoke the take prohibition.

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La Bont said, We wont be able to work in the water when steelhead are present.

Your points are well-taken, said Griffin. There are impacts. There are ways to deal with them, but there could be additional permitting time.

He said the best he could do would be to minimize regulation of things that dont really matter, and focus on the things that do.

La Bont was also the first of about 30 people to give testimony. She presented Griffin with a copy of the letter the commissioners sent the president, asking him to make the fisheries service consider the latest data in making its decision.

She said the reason the province might get listed is because of what is happening on the California side of the border.

She said if steelhead populations are in trouble anywhere in the province, it is in the federally-managed Klamath River, which suffers from agricultural water withdrawals and tribal fisheries.

La Bont said Curry County has already been impacted by listings of the spotted owl and coho salmon, and new regulations on groundfish harvests.

This listing will affect our tourist economy, she said, and in Gold Beach, thats all we have left.

She will ask Sens. Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith to look into federal fisheries management.

If Oregon can show its populations are healthy, what proof does the federal government have that Californias populations are not healthy? she said.

I hope your decision is made on the biological data available,

La Bont, and virtually all those testifying, received hearty applause from the entire crowd.

Next up, with the latest biological data, was Tom Satterthwaite, a research biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

He said the departments official position is that the steelhead should not be listed.

He said Oregon surveys conducted in 1999 and 2000 show wild juvenile steelhead in nearly all locations accessible to adult spawners.

Juvenile population densities were considered healthy. Hatchery fish composed a maximum of 15 percent of the natural spawners, far lower than previous department estimates.

Satterthwaites data showed that the probability of steelhead extinction was essentially zero. He said the abundance of wild fish in three of four Rogue River populations was at least 70 percent of the level needed for full seeding.

Using four different methods, the department estimated the adult wild steelhead population on the Oregon side of the Klamath Mountains Province at between 69,000 and 83,000 fish.

Crumley said he could back up that data. He said steelhead fry could be found in every creek a road crosses in Curry County, even above pipes that are supposed to be barriers to fry.

Steelhead are so athletic they can be found anywhere, he said.

He said if steelhead had been listed 20 years ago, and a rebuilding goal had been set,they would say we had reached that goal now.

Members of the Curry Guides Association and other guides testified about the abundance of steelhead in Curry County streams, and the importance of that fishery to their livelihood.

Bill McNair said that after 30 years of guiding, he now does it to gain political influence with some of his influential customers.

Garth is not our enemy, he said. He urged an independent survey be done by a credible biologist to give the fisheries service data on both Oregon and California.

The South Coast Fishermen also turned out in force, and President Dick Sutter submitted a video showing 100 juvenile steelhead in one small pool of Jacks Creek in September.

Brookings attorney Chris Keusink said the Oregon data gives the fisheries service good reason to reverse its original decision.

He said the judge ruled the service was being arbitrary and capricious in ignoring data in its decision to not list. He said the service would be doing the same if it ignored the Oregon data.

Some speakers from the Illinois Valley said the listing was a states right issue. One said the Siskiyou Project, supported by the World Wildlife Federation, pushed for the lawsuit to reverse the services decision to not list.

Another said the Endangered Species Act has to be amended or we wont have a country.

Richard Nawa, an ecologist with the Siskiyou Project, encouraged the listing.

He said, however, that officials in both states agree that sport angling is not the problem.

He said habitat destruction from logging, agriculture, mining, and pollution from cities is the real cause of steelhead decline.

John Wilson, chairman of the South Coast Watershed Council, said habitat is being restored by the councils and other volunteers. He said the state is putting $16 million into that effort.

River guide Steve Beyerlin said 360 fish screens have been added to irrigation projects in two years. He said the Savage Rapids dam on the Rogue would be removed.

Herb Looney, a member of the South Coast Fisherman, said he hasnt seen any difference over the years in steelhead population due to logging or farming.

He said the real problem was predation from marine mammals and birds, whose populations are out of control.

Griffin said the fisheries service has recommended that the Marine Mammal Act be amended, but that is up to Congress.

He also said the service is aware that the steelhead population is in good shape on the Oregon side. The problem is a lack of data and cooperation from California, though that may be changing.

He said the services biological review team would study the Oregon data and make a recommendation.

The service will then make its decision by March 31, and prepare for challenges no matter which way it goes.

Look in the mirror, said Beyerlin. Stick to your convictions if you believe in your decision to not list.

In this state, he said, There will be a war if these listings go on without credibility.

Comments may be mailed to the service through March 5 to Chief, Protected Resources Division, NMFS, 525 N.E. Oregon Street, Suite 500, Portland OR 97232-2737.