SACRAMENTO (CN) – Finding insufficient evidence that coho salmon are not native to California streams south of San Francisco, an appeals court on Friday rejected timber harvesters’ attempt to strike the species from the endangered list.
“We are relieved that the court upheld important protections for some of California’s most imperiled salmon populations and recognized the strong scientific evidence of historical coho salmon populations south of San Francisco,” Jonathan Evans, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email. “Salmon are a crucial part of California’s treasured waterways. Coho salmon are teetering on the brink of extinction due to threats like climate change and timber harvesting. The court’s ruling today is an important lifeline to make sure coho salmon have the endangered species protection they need for a chance at recovery.”
The Center for Biological Diversity fought on behalf of the state to keep the coho on the endangered species list.
But the Central Coast Forest Association and Big Creek Lumber Company have been pushing to delist coho salmon south of San Francisco since 2004. This was shortly before the Fish and Game Commission issued a final action upholding the 1995 decision to list coho salmon in Scott and Waddell Creeks in Santa Cruz County south of San Francisco as endangered.
At the time, the commission found that coho salmon populations in that area had declined over 98 percent since the 1960s and had little chance of expanding on their own.
On June 17, 2004, the companies filed a delisting petition asking the commission to “redefine the southern boundary of the Central California Coast coho salmon evolutionary significant unit [ESU] to exclude coastal waterways south of San Francisco, thereby delisting coho salmon south of San Francisco from the list of endangered or the list of threatened species.”
The timber companies argued that archaeological evidence showed that coho salmon are not native to streams south of San Francisco and that “populations of coho salmon south of San Francisco are not an important component in the evolutionary legacy of the species.” They also said coho salmon populations south of San Francisco had been artificially introduced to the area via hatcheries.
The commission denied the petition in 2005, which the companies challenged in state court. They won, but the fight traveled up the appeals chain. When it landed before the California Supreme Court, it remanded the case back to the third appellate district in Sacramento.
The court’s three-justice panel, headed by Presiding Justice Cole Blease, again denied the petition. “We shall conclude that the petition does not contain sufficient scientific evidence, considered in light of the department’s scientific report and expertise, to justify delisting the coho salmon south of San Francisco,” Blease wrote in the court’s 58-page opinion.
He added that the timber companies’ archaeological and historical evidence offered to show that coho salmon never existed south of San Francisco before they were introduced by non-native hatchery plantings just wasn’t strong enough.
“Petitioners have not offered sufficient evidence that the current inhabitants of the streams south of San Francisco are directly the result of out-of-state hatchery stock,” he wrote. “Moreover, the Commission relied on recent genetic data, the results of which rule out the claim that hatchery fish replaced the native stock south of San Francisco.”
Blease was joined by Justice Ronald Robie and Justice George Nicholson.
In a phone interview, the petitioners’ lawyer James Buchal called the ruling another example of “government overreach” and judicial deference to environmental groups.
“It’s sad to see the deepening corruption of science in California. It’s just another layer of regulation and stupidity,” he said. “This decision is sinking California into a pit of idiocy from which it will never return.”
Buchal said his clients are concerned that the non-native coho salmon are impinging on habitats already populated by native steelhead salmon. “When you stick steelhead salmon in a stream with coho salmon that were never there to begin with, you injure the steelhead,” he said.
But Evans called the timber harvesters’ concern for steelhead specious.
“The petitioners/plaintiffs are timber companies, not advocates for steelhead,” he said, noting that the appellate court’s ruling blames timber harvesting in part for the decline in coho populations.
“It seems pretty transparent that their interests lie in reducing restrictions on timber operations, not protecting salmon or steelhead,” Evans added. “Protections for waterways that contain coho salmon would also benefit steelhead trout in those same rivers. So, in essence, greater protections against sediment, erosion, roads, and increases in water temperature due to timber harvest would benefit both salmon and steelhead, which have similar ecological needs.”
Buchal said he wasn’t sure if he would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.