WILDLIFE:

Congress, administration getting closer to authorizing Calif. sea lion killings in Columbia River

Federal and state wildlife regulators want Congress to give them more legal latitude to kill California sea lions that feast on endangered salmon.

Representatives from the Obama administration and the Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife departments gave their support yesterday to House lawmakers' efforts to advance legislation that would allow the killing of California sea lions in the Columbia River. The effort to target sea lions is intended to help protect endangered salmon as they return to spawn.

"We believe there should be some consideration of measures to deal with a robust sea lion population, particularly when they are feeding on an endangered population," said Jim Lecky, director of the office of protected resources for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

At issue is legislation from Natural Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) that would authorize the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to issue one-year permits to the states of Washington and Oregon and four Columbia River treaty tribes for the "lethal taking" of sea lions. The sea lions are currently protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

The California sea lion population has been growing in numbers, and many of the sea lions have grown more bold in their search for food.

After breeding in Southern California rookeries, male sea lions migrate north in search of food, and many gather in the lower Columbia River. In recent years, 70 to 80 sea lions have traveled 150 miles upriver to the Bonneville Dam, between Washington and Oregon, where they were rarely spotted before 2001.

NOAA estimates that last year, sea lions ate more than 5,000 Columbia River Basin chinook salmon and steelhead. State and tribal biologists estimated that sea lions killed 20 percent of the spring chinook run below Bonneville Dam.

According to NOAA, the West Coast's California sea lion population is "healthy and stable" and may be at or near carrying capacity. But salmonid populations are at risk. More than half of the 52 recognized salmonid populations that spawn in the Pacific Northwest are considered threatened or endangered.

Wildlife officials said they have failed with attempts to fend off the sea lions by nonlethal methods, like acoustic devices intended to scare them away. Robin Brown, program leader of marine mammal research for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the sea lions are "survivors" that "learn quickly" and adapt to scare tactics.

"There is nothing we know of today short of removing these animals that would eliminate the drive they have to do to these places and consume these fish," Brown said.

There is a process in place currently that allows state officials to apply for a permit to "take" sea lions, but wildlife officials said it is too complicated and drawn-out to be of use.

"Unfortunately, it is a Catch-22 ... as written, you can't do anything until you have a huge problem, but once you have a huge problem, it is too late," Brown said.

Brown said the sea lion problem would not have grown so large if state officials had been able to take out the few sea lions that started eating salmon at the dam in 2002.

The federal government has tried to authorize the states to kill sea lions in recent years but has met opposition in the courts.

Last November, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned authorization by the National Marine Fisheries Service to kill the sea lions. The court found that the service, which is part of NOAA, had not shown sufficient evidence that salmon populations are at risk from sea lions.

In May of this year, NOAA tried again, authorizing Washington and Oregon to lethally remove the sea lions. Shortly after the NOAA announcement, the Humane Society of the United States, the Wild Fish Conservancy and two citizens filed suit to stop the killing. The groups claimed that sea lions had only consumed an average of 2.5 percent of the salmon over the past three years.

On May 25, the groups announced they reached a temporary deal with NMFS, Washington and Oregon to halt plans to kill sea lions this year at Bonneville Dam.

The legislation, which Hastings has dubbed the "Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act," would amend the marine mammal act to allow state and tribal enforcers to kill sea lions at the dam. It is a variation on legislation that Hastings and other Northwest lawmakers introduced five years ago.

The bill, H.R. 996, also sets some constraints: It would only allow the takes after nonlethal means have been exhausted and would set limits on the number of sea lions to be killed annually per permit.

NMFS's Lecky did not directly endorse the legislation but said the administration "appreciates the bill's attempts to streamline procedures necessary to take action."

The administration takes issue with some specific provisions of the bill. For instance, it requires the fisheries service to determine that nonlethal measurements are ineffective -- something the agency has done already, Lecky said.

The Humane Society also opposes the legislation. Sharon Young, the Humane Society's marine issues field director, said that it is not clear that killing sea lions would actually help the salmon, which face other threats. Sea lions ate about 1.4 percent of the salmon population last year, she said.

"This is not an issue of charismatic sea lions versus endangered salmon," Young told the committee.

If lawmakers pursue the legislation, Young said they should at least restrict the shooting to uniformed state personnel, to make it more clear that only authorized officials are allowed to kill the sea lions.

"People may see this as, there's a sea lion coming after my fish, maybe I have a right to do this too," Young said. "I don't believe we need to kill sea lions to protect the salmon, but if you are going to do it, you should make it easier for the public to tell who can or cannot do it."

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