An 18-person panel of experts has been appointed to review a request for permission to lethally remove California sea lions believed to be having a "significant negative impact" on Columbia River basin salmon and steelhead stocks listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The request from the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington asks that they be allowed to remove as many 80 California sea lions each year from the area just below Bonneville Dam. Federal biologists estimate that sea lions took about 3,500 salmon and steelhead this year, about 4 percent of the spawners set to climb the dam's fish ladders. That take was comprised largely of upriver spring Chinook salmon, which has listed Upper Columbia and Snake river components.

NOAA Fisheries Service, the federal agency charged with administering such requests, announced the appointments Thursday.

The task force includes: Daryl Boness, Marine Mammal Commission; Bruce Buckmaster, Salmon for All; Jody Calica, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation; Robert Delong, NOAA Fisheries Service National Marine Mammal Laboratory; Patricia Dornbusch, NOAA Fisheries Service Northwest Region Salmon Recovery Division; Doug Hatch, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission; Tom Loughlin, Independent Marine Mammal Scientist; Debrah Marriott, Lower Columbia River Estuary Partnership

Barry McPherson, Oregon Chapter, American Fisheries Society; Guy Norman, Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife; Joe Oatman, Nez Perce Tribes; Dennis Richey, Oregon Anglers; Carl Scheeler, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; Tony Vecchio, Oregon Zoo; Paul Ward, Confederated Bands of the Yakama Nation; Steve Williams, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife; Bob Willis, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Sharon Young, Sharon, Humane Society of the United States.

The review panel, known formally as the Pinniped-Fishery Interaction Task Force, will hold its first meeting in Portland Sept. 4, and will make a recommendation to NOAA Fisheries Service within 60 days of that meeting.

NOAA expects to make a decision about granting the states' request by next March.

A positive recommendation from NOAA would trigger potentially longer processes. The impacts of any action plan would have to be weighed under the standards of National Environmental Policy Act as well as other statutes, including an analysis of ESA impacts.

"We've got our work cut out for us," said Garth Griffin, a supervisory fishery biologist and branch chief for the Northwest Region's Protected Resources Division. A timeframe for those processes, he said, is impossible to calculate.

"It depends on the range of alternatives we analyze," Griffin said. NOAA plans to conduct an environmental review of the actions recommended by the task force along with other alternatives, including a "no-action" alternative, in support of its decision in response to the states' application.

Task force recommendations would likely "describe a range of opinions that would be turned into alternatives" for analysis in the NEPA process, Griffin said. The agency is already beginning to set the stage for that process but can't really determine its scope until the task force has completed its work.

"We're going to do the best we can" in advance of the task force recommendations, he said.

"NMFS expects the Task Force to work together to develop recommendations that document the points of consensus reached by the group as well as the alternate points of view when consensus is not reached," according to a NOAA overview of the process. "Task Force recommendations should fairly reflect the full range of opinion of the group. NMFS expects the Task Force to acknowledge differences of opinion and include minority views with its recommendations."

During its 60-day window, the task force will consider relevant information and recommend to NMFS whether to approve or deny the states' request. If it recommends approval, it must also includes a description of the specific pinniped individuals, the proposed location, time, and method of taking, criteria for evaluating the success of the action, and the duration of the intentional lethal taking authority, according to NOAA. The task force may also suggest non-lethal alternatives, if available and practicable.

Washington, Oregon and Idaho submitted the request in a letter to NOAA Fisheries Service last November.

A 1994 amendment to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits the take of seals and sea lions, permits the intentional lethal taking of individually identifiable pinnipeds that are proven to have a significant negative impact on the decline or recovery of salmonids listed under the ESA or approaching threatened or endangered status. The state application attempts to document that significant impact.

The amendment, Section 120, gives NOAA Fisheries Service the responsibility of determining where an application warrants formation of a task force. The provision was used once, in the mid-1990s, to address sea lion predation on steelhead at Seattle's Ballard Locks.

Less than a decade ago sea lion predation on returning adult salmon at Bonneville was rare. The number of sea lions grew from six animals in 2001, to 111 and 105 in 2003 and 2004 and numbered 85 in 2005 and 2006.

The Corps study launched in 2001 indicates that the sea lions' predation on salmon has also increased, from 0.35 percent of the total upriver spring Chinook run passing the dam in 2001 (1,010 salmonids) to 3.4 percent or 2,920 salmon in 2005. Last year the sea lions consumed an estimated 2.8 percent of the upriver run just in the area immediately below the dam.

The big pinnipeds begin arriving in the river in midwinter and have exited by June. An estimated 80 individuals were counted by the researchers this year with as many as 54 at the dam on any one day.

The states say affected listed salmon and steelhead include Lower Columbia River Chinook Lower Columbia River, Middle Columbia River, Upper Willamette and Snake River Basin steelhead and Upper Columbia River spring, Snake River Spring/Summer Upper Willamette and Lower Columbia River Chinook salmon.

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