GRAYS RIVER - Rob Walton, NOAA Fisheries assistant regional administrator for salmon recovery, says his agency is stepping up efforts to gain the aid and advice of others in the region toward the goal of completing draft salmon recovery plans in each of six domains by December.

"NOAA Fisheries cannot do this by itself," Walton said of the agency's self-assigned December deadline.

One of the few plans close to completion deals in part with recovery of Lower Columbia chum salmon, which return to the Grays River in Western Wahkiakum County.

Walton joined fish and wildlife managers last Tuesday to "brainstorm" about how grass-roots infrastructure might be created and/or galvanized to help build plans that satisfy both Endangered Species Act requirements and local wishes.

"We're not in a position to start dictating to the region what will be in these recovery plans," Walton told participants in the Columbia Basin Fish and Wildlife Authority's Members Management Group. CBFWA membership includes the fish and wildlife agencies for four Northwest states, 13 Columbia Basin tribes, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The first Northwest salmon stock was listed in 1991 and the actual recovery planning process required by the federal ESA began shortly thereafter. Federal agencies have estimated that federal costs related to improving the lot of salmon lot have risen to $600 million annually, derived largely from Bonneville Power Administration revenues and congressional appropriations.

There are 26 listed West Coast salmon and steelhead stocks, including 15 in the Pacific Northwest (with two additional stocks now listed as candidates for listing).

Walton said "salmon funding fatigue" has set in the national's capital, bringing increasing scrutiny of budgets and demands for progress.

The recovery plans will ultimately describe what it will take to improve the stocks' status to the point that that they no longer needed ESA protection and describe the actions necessary to achieve recovery goals. To be recovered a stock must be deemed likely to "persist" into the future at viable population levels, and NOAA must provide assurances that all of the factors responsible for the fishes' decline have been addressed. The plans are also supposed to estimate the cost and time required to carry out those actions.

Groups of scientists -Technical Recovery Teams -have been assembled to determine what those delisting criteria are. It is envisioned that regional policy makers would decide what goals might be included in the plans beyond merely satisfying the federal statutes -such as building runs strong enough to support sport, commercial and tribal harvest.

The TRT work is in various stages, depending on the particular domain. Likewise the policy frameworks are in various stages of organization, or lack of organization.

Only one draft appears on the immediate horizon. Last month the Lower Columbia Fish Recovery Board and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife delivered to NOAA what is the region's first locally developed regional salmon recovery plan. It aims to restore five species of salmon as well as other fish to healthy, harvestable levels during the next 25 years. It encompasses areas on the Lower Columbia River as well as 18 major and a number of lesser tributary basins in Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Skamania, Wahkiakum, and portions of Pacific and Klickitat counties.

Strategies and measures described in the plan aim to address all threats or factors limiting recovery. Those threats or limiting factors include: subbasin stream habitat and watershed conditions; estuary and mainstem habitat; tributary and mainstem hydropower configuration and operation; in basin and out-of-basin harvest; mitigation and conservation hatcheries; and ecological interactions including non-native species, food web, and predation

The LCFRB, created in 1998, represented a broad-based local forum for development of the plan. The board and its technical advisers had available delisting criteria developed by a TRT convened by NOAA. The Lower Columbia/Willamette river "domain" is home to five listed salmon stocks -Lower Columbia and Upper Willamette chinook, Lower Columbia chum and Lower Columbia and Upper Willamette steelhead. Each domain plan will include recovery strategies for each of the listed species.

Walton said Tuesday that NOAA would not rewrite the Lower Columbia plan, but rather add to it sections specifically required by the ESA. That draft should be available for public review by early summer.

Plans for the other five domains are still works in progress. The Shared Strategy for Puget Sound organization hopes to complete a plan by June. Work for the Oregon coast domain is being led by the governor's office and local stakeholders while the Upper Columbia effort is being organized through the Upper Columbia Salmon Recovery Board.

The is no policy framework in place addressing Mid-Columbia and Snake river domains, Walton said. NOAA is encouraging existing entities and processes to take the initiative. Walton said his agency may organize workshops to bring interested local people together to formulate goals.

"We will try to facilitate the type of policy framework we need," Walton said. "We will work with you guys." That will include, particularly in the less developed domains, a attempts to broaden the participation.

"We will develop that in the next couple of months. We want them to get as far as they can" in creating goals before handing off to NOAA Fisheries, Walton said.

"We need to be respectful of the local politics," Walton said.

Likewise work is ongoing with the TRTs, teams of scientists from state, federal and tribal agencies and academic institutions and consultants.

"We have an intimidating task ahead of us," Walton said of the December 2005 goal for draft action plans.

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