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City of Prineville and regional irrigation districts are nearing the finish line on a decade-long effort to complete a Habitat Conservation Plan that protects the entities from violating Endangered Species Act laws

PHOTO COURTESY OF CITY OF PRINEVILLE - An aerial photo of the Crooked River Wetland Complex shows the results of the riparian work conducted along the adjacent Crooked River, action that has helped the municipality and irrigiation districts inch closer to completing a Habitat Conservation Plan.

A decade-long effort to protect the city of Prineville and regional irrigation districts from litigation related to accidental harming of reintroduced steelhead is finally nearing conclusion.

Since 2008, the city and members of the Deschutes Basin Board of Control have been working on a Habitat Conservation Plan. The voluntary method in which nonfederal entities may comply with the Endangered Species Act enables the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to issue permits to carry out otherwise legal activities that may have an impact on species that are listed as threatened or endangered.

The long process to complete the HCP and receive an incident take permit that protects the city and irrigation districts was spurred by the introduction of steelhead into the Deschutes River Basin, which includes the Crooked River and Ochoco Creek, in 2007.

"Historically, steelhead were in this basin. When the Pelton Round Butte (dams) project went in in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the (fish) passage didn't work and that species essentially died out above those dams," explained City Engineer Eric Klann. "The hatchery fish were reintroduced, and it wasn't a big deal at the time because they were hatchery fish. But right around that time, there was a ruling that came out through the federal courts that said you can't differentiate between hatchery fish and native fish. That was a big deal because all of a sudden, these hatchery fish were considered threatened."

The city began its HCP effort by requesting a nonprosecutorial discretion letter from National Marine Fisheries Service, which provided protection from incidental take for about two years. While that was still active, the city pursued and was granted a 10j designation ruling, which made the steelhead species experimental and nonessential for a period of 10 years.

"That is going to sunset in a couple years," Klann remarked. "Now, we are getting the Habitat Conservation Plan, and that will provide decades of protection."

On Oct. 3, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the availability of a draft HCP and draft Environmental Impact Statement, and it opened a 45-day comment period on the documents. In addition to providing protection from the take of steelhead, it includes similar protection for the spotted frog and bull trout, two other endangered species in the basin.

The announcement regarding the documents followed a two-month scoping period during the summer of 2017 that included four public meetings in Madras and Bend. Two more meetings were held this week, one in Prineville and another in Bend.

An HCP plan is usually built around conservation measures that will be implemented over the life of the permits. The city has already completed one conservation project, the Crooked River Wetland Complex, and others will follow in the future.

"There are a lot of ancillary benefits to it that helped the Crooked River," Klann said of the wetland. "We did all of those riparian improvements to the Crooked River and we are adding that cool, clear water to it. So that was really our conservation effort that allowed us to receive the incidental take permit."

Klann went on to note that the city and irrigation districts have some commitments that will contribute minimal funds to the Crooked River Watershed Council to continue doing conservation work.

Ten years into pursuit of the HCP, city and irrigation district leaders are finally nearing the conclusion of the effort, perhaps in less than a year.

"I think, best case scenario, we are looking at next summer," Klann estimated. "Hopefully late next summer we will have the permit in hand."

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