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The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife says California sea lions are eating too many salmonids.

COURESTY PHOTO: RICK SWART/ODFW - A sea lion chomps down on a local fish near Willamette Falls. Sea lions are back in the crosshairs of state officials trying to keep protected fish out of the voracious predators' jaws.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has received federal approval for a plan allowing expedited killing of the slippery beasts at Willamette Falls, the agency said in a Thursday, Nov. 15 announcement.

The agency can now cull up to 93 sea lions annually for the next five years. About 50 to 100 sea lions are believed to be using the Falls as a hunting ground over the course of one year.

"We did put several years' effort into non-lethal deterrence, none of which worked. The unfortunate reality is that, if we want to prevent extinction of the steelhead and Chinook, we will have to lethally remove sea lions at this location," said ODFW policy analyst Shaun Clements.

"Before this decision, the state's hands were tied," he continued.

In recent years, California sea lions have gobbled up as much as 25 percent of the winter steelhead run and 9 percent of the spring Chinook fording the scenic falls located between Oregon City and West Linn.

ODFW wasn't powerless to stop them — the agency euthanized about 30 sea lions last season — but had to follow a set of onerous requirements stipulated by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which covers sea lions.

COURTESY PHOTO: RICK SWART/ODFW - A California sea lion in a trap like this one near Willamette Falls is headed for an untimely end. The new rules approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service require ODFW to observe a sea lion eating a salmonid or document its presence in the river for two days before lethal removal. The old rules required spotters to see the sea lion on five different days, see it eating fish and try to scare it off before killing it.

"We are trying to prevent a few individual sea lions from habituating to these areas that are hundreds of miles from the ocean where they are especially effective at driving already depleted fish populations further down the path to extinction," said Clements.

"We currently have up to 12 animals at the Falls and a majority of those have been seen here every year for the past 10 years" added Shea Steingass, who leads ODFW's marine mammal program.

With an estimated population of nearly 300,000, California sea lions are not considered an endangered or threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act. ODFW says if nothing had changed, the Willamette run of winter steelhead was slated for extinction someday.

Scientists will perform necropsies after the animals are trapped and then euthanized by veterinarians in order to study their behavior and ecology. Biologists will also record their age, health and diet.

The agency says it still needs a champion in the U.S. legislature who can provide local wildlife managers with more authority to kill wildlife. The NMFS approval, which is up for renewal in five years, does nothing to stop predation of white sturgeon by steller sea lions, for instance. COURTESY PHOTO: RICK SWART/ODFW - The total population of California sea lions is estimated at 300,000.

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