The legal debate over whether salmon-eating California sea lions can be lethally removed from lower Columbia River waters should be moved to an Oregon-based court, according to a “joint stipulation and proposed order” filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The states last week asked to intervene in the lawsuit against the federal government and requested the litigation be shifted to the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. In the stipulation filed Thursday the federal defendants, states and Humane Society of the United States requested that the transfer be allowed in order to “expedite resolution of this matter….”
The D.C. court on Friday (today) approved the transfer.
The lawsuit was filed in the D.C. court March 19 by the HSUS and Wild Fish Conservancy. It alleges that a March 15 NOAA Fisheries Service decision authorizing sea lion removals violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The NOAA Fisheries’ letter of authorization would allow the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington to remove up to 92 California sea lions per year for up to five years. Such removals would target marine mammals that are known of prey on salmon searching for an upriver passage route at the dam.
Wild steelhead and salmon spawners are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The states say that sea lion predation sets back expensive efforts to recover listed fish populations.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit asked the D.C. court for a temporary restraining order to prevent implementation of the sea lion removal plan but Judge James E. Boasberg on March 22 denied the request. He did, however, stipulate that “NMFS's authorization to the States is limited to the lethal removal this year of thirty (30) California sea lions, none of which may be killed by shooting.” The authorization would have allowed the animals to be trapped and chemically euthanized, or shot.
The judge said the limits would apply during the pendency of the lawsuit or until further order of the court.
His proposed order filed this week suggests that the plaintiffs file a motion for a preliminary injunction by April 6 with a response from the defendants due before April 20. Under the proposed briefing schedule the plaintiffs would then be allowed to respond no later than April 27.
The authorization was set to start March 20 according to the NOAA Fisheries order, but that start date was set back pending a March 22 hearing regarding the restraining order request.
The states were geared up, with four floating traps located below the dam, but since late last week business has been slow.
As of midweek researchers at the dam reported that as many as 5-6 California sea lions have been seen below the dam in recent days. And some had been seen on and off the traps and “rafting around them” late last week and early this week. But by Tuesday only Steller sea lions were being spotted on the traps.
Stellers, like California sea lions, tend to congregate below the dam in spring time, with their main target being white sturgeon. The states are not authorized to remove Steller sea lions, which are listed under the ESA.
Also absent, for the most part, have been salmon. Through Wednesday only 37 adult salmon had been counted passing the dam so far this year. A total of more than 314,000 upriver spring chinook salmon, fish bound for streams above Bonneville, are expected to enter the Columbia this year.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Robert Stansell said Thursday that chinook take is slowly increasing in recent days, even though few have passed the dam. Through March 21 15 chinook and 23 steelhead had been seen taken by California sea lions below the dam. Stansell leads research at the dam aimed at evaluating the effect of pinniped predation on salmon below the dam. Researchers in late winter and spring observe and chart predation activity in the area immediately below Bonneville.
For more information see CBB, March 23, 2012, “Judge Denies Stay For Sea Lion Killing; Limits Take To 30, With No Shooting Allowed” http://www.cbbulletin.com/418331.aspx