(CN) – Relying on the government’s scientific conclusions, the 9th Circuit ruled that hatchery-raised steelhead and salmon should be lumped together with wild populations for endangered species listing purposes.
Fish and river advocacy groups, led by Trout Unlimited, challenged downlisting of the Upper Columbia River steelhead after a 2005 National Marine Fisheries Service hatchery policy added human-raised fish to the population, shifting it from endangered to threatened.
Trout Unlimited argued that hatchery-raised fish homogenize an evolutionarily diverse gene pool for salmon and steelhead, which are born in the headwaters of Pacific Northwest rivers, migrate to live in the sea, then return to their natal grounds to spawn and die.
Pacific salmonids began to suffer population declines in the 1930s and 1940s due to dams, while modern-day threats include logging, road-building, and urban development.
The Building Industry Association of Washington and other development lobbies intervened, arguing against a program where the fisheries service allowed “take” of some hatchery-raised fish while prohibiting harm against wild specimens.
A Federal Court in Washington state partially agreed with the fish advocates, striking the threatened listing for the Upper Columbia River steelhead, considered endangered since 1997, while allowing the agency to lump hatchery fish with wild fish into an “evolutionarily significant unit” and refuting the building association’s claims.
The 9th Circuit distinguished between definitional and listing phases, writing that any definition of population types should not be influenced by threats.
The opinion, written by Judge O’Scannlain, refused to second-guess the federal agency’s scientific reasoning for refusing the fish advocates’ petitions, pointing out that “there is no scientific consensus concerning the relationship between hatchery and natural fish.”
Calling Trout Unlimited’s argument “simplistic,” the circuit upheld the hatchery policy as an “eminently reasonable” construction of the Endangered Species Act. The policy comprises a “complex evaluation process” encompassing potential benefits of the hatchery program, which include reintroduction of the species into areas where it’s been wiped out and acting as a genetic bank to safeguard against extinction.
“In the same way that pruning involves the destruction of some branches of a tree to allow the remaining portions to grow,” the agency used sound judgment in allowing the destruction of some parts of the population for the remaining portions to flourish, the appellate court reasoned.
The circuit upheld the fishery service’s ability to define wild and hatchery fish as distinct, reversed and remanded the lower court’s striking of the Upper Columbia River steelhead downlisting, and tossed all claims of the building association as lacking in legal grounds.