The Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Fish and Wildlife Committee on Tuesday decided, in some corners begrudgingly, to give a long-running John Day River subbasin habitat project another chance to prove the work is improving the health of salmon and steelhead stocks.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Mainstem, Middle Fork, John Day Rivers Fish Habitat Enhancement project has been funded through the NPCC's fish and wildlife program since 1984.
But in making recommendations for fiscal years 2007-2009, the Council made 2008 and 2009 funding contingent on the completion of an "accomplishments report" as called for by the Independent Scientific Review Panel and a favorable review of that report.
The ISRP reviews for scientific merit projects proposed for program funding. The Bonneville Power Administration funds the program with revenues from power sales as mitigation for federal Columbia/Snake river hydro system impacts on fish and wildlife.
The latest of several ISRP reviews of the project concluded that it "does not meet scientific criteria."
"This recommendation ensued because of inadequate results reporting, apparent inadequate monitoring, and the lack of data collected in the past," the April 22 ISRP report said. "The latter two factors resulted, in part, from the lack of adequate financial support for monitoring in the John Day subbasin."
The ISRP acknowledged that the project sponsor was hampered in some respects. In making its funding recommendations the Council concluded that monitoring and evaluation "should be dealt with as a programmatic issue and effectiveness monitoring of individual habitat projects should be de-emphasized because it is expensive and has not produced acceptable results." With those components unfunded, answering ISRP questions is made more difficult.
However, "The Council … did not request that the sponsors answer questions 4 and 5 which were critical to a determination of whether the project was showing benefits or might show benefits in the future," the ISRP said. "Even so, the sponsors could have provided more comprehensive answers to questions 1 through 3 based on available data, which was requested by the Council."
An earlier ISRP review had suggested that the accomplishments report "should at least:
1. Identify locations where restoration has occurred;
2. The locations of these sites relative to spawning and rearing areas for the focal species;
3. Identify all the monitoring data that may exist for each of these sites;
4. Analyze and interpret the data;
5. Outline monitoring for the future.
"In the end, after this iterative review process, we are little farther along than the initial proposal review in understanding benefits to fish from John Day habitat enhancement actions," the ISRP said.
"There is little empirical information or analysis that have yet to suggest that habitat conditions subbasin-wide will be quantitatively or qualitatively improved or that more fish will be returning over the next 20 years as a consequence of pursuing the project tasks as the sponsors have in the past."
The Council staff recommended this week that the project be closed out in fiscal 2009. The project, intended to enhance production of indigenous wild stocks of spring chinook and summer steelhead through habitat protection, enhancement and fish passage improvement, is funded at $540,000 this year.
A May 1 memo said the staff shared the ISRP's disappointment, especially "considering that ODFW was provided a certain degree of coverage regarding the final two bullets (i.e., data analysis and monitoring), and that the response time for the submittal was a little over nine months. It would seem that over that extended period of time ODFW would be able to adequately compile the requested information and/or utilize information from other fundable projects in the subbasin."
Still, Idaho Councilor Bill Booth said "there's a need there. It's been supported for funding for some time." He said that the ODFW should be given more time to find the answers the ISRP seeks, given the fact that the project is part of a broader effort in the basin to recover the salmonid stocks. The steelhead run is part of the Middle Columbia stock listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
"There are critical things that need to be done" in the subbasin to boost populations, said Tony Grover, the NPCC's Fish and Wildlife director.
Oregon Councilor Joan Dukes likewise said the ODFW should be allowed more time.
"They haven't been able to find the rock, the rocks, that the ISRP wants them to find," Dukes said. "Maybe it's not out there, but maybe it is."
"I feel that ODFW can address this," said Mark Fritsch, the Council's project implementation manager. "I think we've got their attention."
"It took three reviews to get their attention?" Montana Council member Rhonda Whiting asked rhetorically.
She and Washington member Dick Wallace said the extra chance to prove the project's worth veers from the established process.
"If we do not take the ISRP seriously, we are diminishing the authority of the Council," said Whiting, the Fish and Wildlife Committee chair.
"We've got to stand true to the ISRP," said Wallace.
The committee ultimately agreed to delay its (and the full Council's) decisions on future funding while allowing the ODFW and BPA to explore remedies and potentially attempt to fill in the data gaps the ISRP says are needed to evaluate the project.
"It can and should work well," Wallace said of the process. He pointed to the Colville Tribes' Rufus Woods Supplementation and Creel project, which won the committee's nod earlier Tuesday and the full Council's Wednesday after satisfactorily answering ISRP questions.