November 12, 2007 - Bend Bulletin - A First for Fish Protection

November 12, 2007
November 12, 2007 - Bend Bulletin - A First for Fish Protection

A first for fish protection - Agencies, landowners want legal protection while reintroducing steelhead to Crooked River 
By Erin Golden / The Bulletin
Published: November 12. 2007 5:00AM PST

Under a proposed “experimental designation,” local governments or agencies would not be liable for steelhead killed during this spring’s reintroduction. PRINEVILLE — With just a few months to go before the scheduled return of steelhead to the Crooked River, planners of the complicated and costly effort have received a major boost.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has agreed to pursue an unprecedented experimental designation that would protect local counties, cities, irrigation districts and landowners from liability if any of the endangered fish are killed. The reintroduction is scheduled to begin this spring with newly hatched steelhead. As they grow, the fish should migrate into the Deschutes River and eventually to the ocean.

The other news, however, is that the reintroduction process is only just beginning. The experimental designation has never been issued by the Fisheries Service and will be tied up in the approval process for at least a year.

So in the meantime, the affected organizations must apply for shorter-term protection. Work to create a long-term protection strategy for the fish, called a habitat conservation plan, is expected to last between five and seven years. Coordinating funding plans between the three counties, five cities and dozens of other interested parties is already causing some confusion.

But almost everyone involved in the process seems to agree on one thing — the work has to go on if the area is to avoid a messy conflict like the one that tore apart the Klamath Basin during a fish reintroduction just a few years ago.

“All of us have differing degrees of exposure, but everybody has some exposure and every (county’s) private landowners are going to be affected, ultimately,” said Crook County Judge Scott Cooper. “The specter that looms in front of us all is the Klamath Basin. We’re trying to do what they were unable to do and come together early and find ways to work through crisis before it emerges. The mess in Klamath was not financially healthy and certainly wasn’t healthy for the communities.”

Representatives from Crook, Jefferson and Deschutes counties, as well as the cities of Prineville, Bend, Madras, Redmond and Sisters, met Friday to discuss the preliminary work that’s already going on for the planned spring 2008 reintroduction and to plan for more coordinated efforts in the near future. The return of the steelhead for the first time in more than three decades is a requirement of the new 50-year license for the Pelton-Round Butte dams owned by Portland General Electric and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. Both groups will be involved in the reintroduction negotiations.

In the long term, organizers hope that the cities, counties and even individuals will be able to contribute time and money to the process. In the meantime, much of the work has fallen on the shoulders of local irrigation districts.

Already this year, the Prineville-based Ochoco Irrigation District has spent nearly $60,000 — around 7 percent of its budget — on lawyers, consultants and travel related to planning for the reintroduction — a far higher amount than the small organization can afford, said the district’s manager, Russell Rhoden. He said the district has had to contribute more resources than expected because the timeline of the reintroduction has been moving so quickly and because of the complicated — and often unfamiliar — requirements of bringing back a species protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

“None of us have been here before, with having a reintroduction of a listed species and trying to figure that out from several standpoints, what’s going to be required and how much does it cost,” he said.

Last week, Rhoden told the Crook County Court that his district is struggling to stay afoot in the expensive permitting process. If the organizations affected by the reintroduction do not receive federal protection, they could be liable for $10,000 per dead fish and left open to litigation and criminal prosecution.

“From our standpoint, the district is trying to bear all the cost for this (experimental designation), so that’s kind of our basis for going to the county and the cities and going, ‘Well this is kind of heavy lifting and, financially, it’s burdensome on the districts,’” he said.

The court agreed to look into helping the district with some of the expenses it has already incurred. And both groups are looking into federal grants that could help cover a large part of the reintroduction expenses. That sort of cooperation — and a successful response to the experimental designation request — will go a long way in making the process run as smoothly as possible, said Prineville City Councilor Betty Roppe.

“We have had letters of support from (legislators) and that helps a lot,” she said. “We’re just hoping we can get some kind of protection put into place, and that looks like it’s going to happen.”

Erin Golden can be reached at 633-2162 or at

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