SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A federal plan to open 2,000 acres of the Klamath River watershed to logging will harm threatened coho salmon and degrade its critical habitat, in violation of the Endangered Species Act, the Karuk Tribe and four environmental groups claim in court.
The Karuk Tribe, the Center for Biological Diversity et al. sued the National Marine Fisheries Service and its regional administrator William Stelle in Federal Court on Thursday.
With more than 6,000 members, the Karuk are one of the largest tribes in California. Karuk means "upriver people" in their language, a branch of the Hokan language group. Their homeland is along the Klamath River. Early Anglo ethnologists described them as a sophisticated democratic society with great knowledge of medicinal uses of plants. They were the only California tribe to grow tobacco.
They challenge the NMFS biological opinion that logging and "incidental take" of salmon associated with the U.S. Forest Service's Westside Fire Recovery Project would not harm threatened and endangered salmon in the Klamath River watershed.
Coho, also known as silver salmon, typically grow to about 28 inches and 7 to 11 pounds at maturity, though some have been recorded at 36 pounds. They are anadromous, spawning in fresh water but living their lives in the Pacific Ocean. They are silver with dark-blue sides in the ocean, and change color in freshwater to feature bright red sides, blue-green heads and dark spots on their backs.
They spawn in November and December. Smolts, or young fish, live in their freshwater habitat for up to 15 months, then migrate to the ocean in spring. To avoid predators and reach adulthood, smolts need a "complex stream morphology of pools, riffles, and backwaters created by large downed trees in the stream channel," according to the 16-page complaint.
Coho are found from Hokkaido, Japan in the North Pacific Ocean south to Monterey Bay, California. They feed on plankton and insects in freshwater, switch to small fish when they enter the ocean, and typically have a three-year life cycle.
The Fisheries Service has divided West Coast coho into six evolutionary significant units, including the South Oregon/Northern California Coasts (SONCC), which is comprised of 41 populations. Once numbering 150,000 to 400,000 naturally spawning fish in the mid-twentieth century, populations have declined to a mere 10,000. In light of this trend, the Fisheries Service in 1997 listed the SONCC coho unit as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
It designated critical habitat for the unit in 1999 that included all accessible river areas and estuaries between the Mattole River in California and Elk River in Oregon after studies indicated that logging threatened the SONCC's unit's populations by removing vegetation, smothering eggs with sediment, altering stream oxygen levels, and increasing water turbidity, among other things.
After wildfires scorched 183,500 acres of private and public land in the Klamath River watershed in 2014, the U.S. Forest Service proposed the Westside Project to clear thousands of acres of trees and reforest the area. This commercial logging will produce around 75 million feet of "merchantable timber" that will take 15,000 logging trucks to haul away, according to the complaint.
The U.S. Forest Service is not a party to the complaint.
The contested portions of the project area encompass 187,100 acres of public land in the middle of the Klamath River Basin, in the Karuks' aboriginal territory.
Under the plan, 5,760 acres of standing dead trees will be salvaged and 3,700 acres will be opened to commercial logging. The plan also authorizes creation of 6.2 miles of temporary roads, 75 new landing areas for hauling, reforestation, and legacy sediment treatments to keep sediment from polluting streams, the complaint states.
Since all the watersheds in the project area serve as habitat for SONCC coho salmon populations, all of which are at moderate to high risk of extinction, the Endangered Species Act required the Forest Service to consult with the Fisheries Service to determine the Westside Project's environmental impact before work on it could begin.
The Fisheries Service found that logging and salvaging in the watersheds would increase sediment erosion and landslide risk, alter water body size and temperature, decrease habitat availability for coho salmon, degrade water quality, and retard watershed recovery, resulting in "adverse effects to individual SONCC coho salmon for approximately ten years," according to the complaint.
Nevertheless, the Fisheries Service issued a no-jeopardy finding on the coho salmon for the project. The plaintiffs call the opinion arbitrary and capricious, as it ignores the obvious harm to coho salmon in the project area, and "because it is based on uncertain and speculative measures related to restored habitat."
They say the incidental take statement was improper because it did not calculate take of coho from project activities, but "used as a surrogate for take quantification the amount of generated fine sediment delivered to streams," as estimated by project models.
Despite acknowledging that logging may slow natural restoration and that money from timber sales will not cover the costs of replanting, the Fisheries Service did not analyze the increased risk of landslides should replanting be delayed by the need for more money, according to the complaint.
Nor does the biological opinion consider species recovery for coho salmon in the project area or address how the project will affect coho conservation efforts, the complaint states.
The Fisheries Service could not be reached for comment after work hours Thursday.
Joining as plaintiffs are the Environmental Information Center, the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, and Klamath Riverkeeper. They seek declaratory judgment that the biological opinion and incidental take statement violate the Endangered Species Act and an injunction preventing any work from being done on the Westside Project until consultation has been reinitiated and completed.
They are represented by Tom Wheeler with the Environmental Protection Information Center in Arcata, who could not be reached for comment Thursday.
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