Bill sacrifices Willamette Falls sea lions to save salmon
A local congressman is pitching a bill that would allow the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to speedily expand its sea lion euthanasia program.
Approximately 29 sea lions have been culled from the Columbia River at Bonneville Dam since the state agency realized in April that its nondeadly trapping program failed to stop the animals from snacking on native salmon.
The euthanasia program now has ended for the season. But the state wildlife agency doesn't have permission to kill the creatures at Willamette Falls — where about 20 percent to 25 percent of the adult steelhead are disappearing down the maws of hungry sea lions each year.
ODFW's Shaun Clements says there were about 40 sea lions prowling the waters between Oregon City and West Linn on any given day, though the total population at the falls is closer to 100.
"No one's come up with a nonlethal method," the senior policy analyst said. "We're going to need to kill the ones that are here."
That's exactly what would be allowed under the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act, a bipartisan bill introduced by U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, and Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Washington.
The bill allows for a maximum of 100 sea lions to be killed for one year, with the possibility of renewing the allowance annually.
Previously, the agency hauled 10 sea lions out of the water and trucked them to a beach south of Newport, Ore., but they all made the 210-mile swim back within six days. On Tuesday, May 22, Clements and the Tribune watched several members of the seal species gulp down fish at the West Linn paper mill site that closed in 2017.
For context, the total population of California sea lions is about 300,000 and growing. The sea lions were historically classified as a saltwater species — but biologists say about 3,000 now are foraging in the fresh waters of the lower Columbia River.
"These predators are present in numbers totally inconsistent with their historic range," Rep. Schrader said in a news release. "We need to eliminate this threat to our iconic Oregon salmon that are struggling to survive."
ODFW already has applied for federal permission to kill sea lions at Willamette Falls, but the soonest the permit could be granted is 2019, and there's no guarantee it will be approved.
Clements says there's a crop of onerous criteria that currently must be met before a sea lion can be killed at Bonneville. The rules include:
• Observing the sea lion in the area for five days nonconsecutively.
• Seeing the sea lion eat at least one fish.
• Subjecting the sea lion to "hazing," which in practice means shooting off firecrackers.
To check these boxes, ODFW removes individual sea lions at Bonneville Dam and gives them a clipper tag, shaving or a brand on their back.
"You basically have people staring at the dam all day," Clements said. "It takes years to get them on the (euthanasia) list."
"One species can't be driving another species to extinction," added Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. "We'll be happier if some real progress is made, but it's going to take the Northwest coming together."
The state and federal government has spent billions of dollars in attempts to restore the native salmon and steelhead populations in Oregon. At least 13 native fish species here are considered endangered or threatened.
But Schrader's bill also would mean modifying the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 — a landmark conservation law comparable to the Endangered Species Act passed the following year.
Clements says some lawmakers are worried about "unintended consequences" or the possibility that the amendments could be hijacked by special interests.
"We're trying to be really focused and narrow," Clements said. "The barrier has always been in the Senate."