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NMFS Treads New Water and Proposes an Experimental Population of Steelhead on the Upper Deschutes

May 24, 2011

NMFS exercised yet to be used authority last week when it issued a proposed rule designating a “nonessential experimental population” of Middle Columbia River (MCR) steelhead on Oregon’s upper Deschutes River.  This designation is a listing under Section 10(j) of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), which allows the release of an experimental population of an ESA-listed species outside the species’ current range, but within its historic range, if the release will help conserve the species.  The “experimental” designation proposal, which is the first of its kind, would delay protections for 12 years to allow water users time to implement plans that will improve habitat and operations to protect MCR steelhead.  

NMFS listed MCR steelhead as a threatened species in 1999 throughout a 35,000 square mile range in eastern Oregon and eastern Washington.  The Deschutes River is within this geographic range; however, roughly 200 miles of historical spawning and rearing habitat has essentially been inaccessible to steelhead since the mid-1900s due to a series of dams, including the Pelton Round Butte Hydroelectric Project.  In 2005, Portland General Electric, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, and other stakeholders reached an agreement to reintroduce MCR steelhead to the upper Deschutes as a condition to issuance of a new federal hydropower license. 

During the “experimental” designation period, the species would be considered “proposed for listing” and certain ESA liability and consultation requirements would be temporarily waived.  The 12-year period is intended to allow three successive generations of adults to return to the upper Deschutes, allowing time to monitor the reintroduction effort and develop conservation measures to support the MCR steelhead.  After the experimental period, the species would be listed and treated as a threatened species. 

This listing was the result of negotiations between NMFS, several irrigation districts, and local governments.  Rather than outright oppose a listing of the species as threatened, these parties sought a delay to the listing to allow time to develop plans to accommodate the species.  At least one Habitat Conservation Plan is currently being developed and others will likely be underway soon.  Appearances on the surface, at least, indicate that NMFS’ approach may be a win-win for steelhead and water users. 

It will be interesting to observe whether NMFS finds additional opportunities to put its newly exercised tool of ESA Section 10(j) to work elsewhere.   

NMFS is seeking comments on its proposed “experimental” designation until July 18, 2011.

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