OLYMPIA - A draft environmental impact statement released for public comment this month moves forward Washington's policy decision to increase emphasis on restoring "wild" steelhead stocks throughout the state.

Incorporating public comments received during a series of public scoping meetings last winter, the draft EIS assesses the benefits and risks of various strategies proposed in a draft statewide steelhead management plan.

The draft EIS's preferred alternative, if implemented through a statewide plan, could mean additional fishing restrictions to assure wild steelhead goals are met and a more active role for the WDFW to assure habitat protection rules are enforced.

"We welcome comments on the draft EIS, because we want to make sure it reflects all the relevant issues," said Jim Buck, statewide steelhead EIS manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"Once completed, the EIS will provide important information for the Fish and Wildlife Commission to consider in determining which policies will be incorporated into WDFW's final statewide steelhead management plan," Buck said.

The major emphasis shift from the status quo to the document's preferred strategy would be "to establish steelhead stock conservation goals in terms of all four viable salmonid population (VSP) parameters (abundance, productivity, diversity and spatial structure) instead of MSH-related abundance," the draft's executive summary says, referring to the prevailing maximum sustainable harvest approach.

"Acknowledging the existing constraints on the ability of WDFW to control habitat impacts, this alternative instructs the Department to emphasize a higher level of involvement within existing authority and increase participation in effective external conservation processes.

"Fisheries are to be managed to meet VSP objectives and to further reduce incidental mortality on wild stocks to levels significantly below the current 10 percent guideline for MSH management," the summary says. "This could result in some additional restrictions on harvest opportunity.

"Artificial production program changes will focus on identifying and reducing the adverse impacts on wild salmonids and establishing a network of wild stock gene banks. Potential recreation impacts on harvest opportunity may result in some watersheds from these program change strategies," according to the draft EIS summary.

"This plan is necessary because in spite of 70 years of conservation efforts, many steelhead stocks are at a fraction of their historic numbers and five of the seven distinct population segments that exist in Washington are federally listed under the Endangered Species Act," according to the document's cover letter, penned by Teresa A. Eturaspe, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's SEPA/NEPA coordinator.

"The foundation and goal of the proposed Statewide Steelhead Management Plan is to 'place the highest priority on the protection of wild steelhead and restoration of these stocks to healthy levels,'" the letter says. The draft EIS released Wednesday analyzes the potential environmental impacts of four management strategies, including status quo and preferred alternatives. The EIS is being prepared to meet requirements of the state and national environmental policy acts.

Several meetings on the draft EIS are scheduled; the one nearest to Pacific County is in Vancouver, Aug. 15, 6:30-8:30 p.m., WDFW Region 5 Office, Conference Room, 2108 Grand Blvd. Contact: Cindy LeFleur, (360) 906-6708.

WDFW will consider public comments on the draft EIS received in writing through Aug. 30, as well as those received at the public meetings. Written comments should be addressed to SEPA/NEPA Coordinator, Regulatory Services Section, Habitat Program, 600 Capitol Way North, Olympia, WA 98501.

The resulting statewide steelhead management plan, scheduled for action by the commission next February, will provide policy guidance for development of regional steelhead management plans that support salmon recovery plans around the state. Those policies address issues including natural production, artificial production, fisheries management, habitat restoration, enforcement, monitoring and education to conserve and restore the state's wild steelhead populations.

Future phased agency actions are anticipated as the regional management plans are developed for the Puget Sound, Olympic Peninsula, Southwest Washington, Lower Columbia River, Mid-Columbia River, Upper Columbia River and Snake River Basin Distinct Population Segments. These RMPs will be reviewed under SEPA and become supplemental actions to this EIS.

Some future actions related to the statewide management plan may require rule making or other environmental processes.

For more information on Washington's steelhead populations and draft statewide management plan, see WDFW's website (http://wdfw.wa.gov/fish/steelhead/index.htm).

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