Legislation that would make it easier for fisheries managers to kill sea lions preying on salmon, steelhead and other species is picking up speed after years of languishing in Congress.
The U.S. House of Representatives is likely to vote on the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Preservation Act sometime next week. The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Idaho Republican Jim Risch, picked up a key Democratic sponsor. Sen. Maria Cantwell signed on to the legislation, making it a bipartisan effort.
"We've been begging to get some bipartisan support on it," said John Sandy, chief of staff for Risch. "Because where do we go if we don't?"
The two senators, representing neighboring Northwest states that are both engaged in the decades-long effort to recover threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead, issued a news release Friday highlighting the need for the bill that has been amended from an earlier version.
"Salmon consumption at Bonneville Dam is five times what it was five years ago, and threatened and endangered species of salmon are being damaged by sea lions in the Columbia River," Risch said.
Cantwell called salmon "central to our culture, our livelihoods and our economy in the Pacific Northwest."
Sea lions feasting on salmon and other fish at places like Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River and Willamette Falls on the Willamette River have been identified as one of the many threats facing protected salmon and steelhead runs. On the Willamette River, fisheries managers from Oregon say sea lion predation could cause a winter steelhead run to go extinct.
The bills are supported by Oregon and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and face opposition from animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States and the Animal Welfare Institute.
The new version of the Senate bill, introduced Thursday, removes a provision that would have allowed Northwest states and American Indian tribes to be issued sea lion kill permits without going through the full National Environmental Policy Act process. Like the House version, it would let the states of Idaho, Washington and Oregon apply for permits to kill problem sea lions in the Columbia and Willamette rivers, as well as other tributaries to the Columbia. The legislation also authorizes the tribes of the Columbia Basin, including the Nez Perce of Idaho, to get the permits.
The states already have the ability to kill sea lions that prey on salmon and steelhead near Bonneville Dam - an artificial bottleneck. But they say the permits from the National Marine Fisheries Service carry onerous rules that make it difficult to remove sea lions before they become established.
Sea lions are sheltered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In order to kill one, states must first document that an individual animal is a problem and that it's been subjected to hazing that hasn't worked. To do that, fisheries officials capture, brand and then release sea lions so they can be identified. To land on a lethal removal list, the branded animals must be observed at Bonneville Dam for five days, be observed eating a salmon and be documented to having been hazed. Once all that happens, the sea lions can be euthanized if the agencies are able to recapture them.
Under the bills in the House and Senate, the need to identify individual animals as being guilty of salmon predation is removed. Instead, any sea lion found more than 112 miles upstream from the mouth of the Columbia, about where the Interstate 205 Bridge between Portland and Vancouver spans the river, could be captured and killed.
It allows the states and tribes to cumulatively kill about 100 sea lions per year, which is roughly the number states can kill now.
Researchers estimate there are about 250,000 to 275,000 California sea lions and about 71,000 Steller sea lions up and down the West Coast of the United States and Canada. Few of those ever enter the Columbia. In years in which sea lions are abundant, as many as 120 a day can be counted at Bonneville Dam and dozens at Willamette Falls.
While the sea lions in the Columbia have drawn the ire of fisheries managers and anglers, animal rights groups say the animals are a scapegoat for other problems such as dams, competition from hatchery fish and habitat degradation.
"The American public overwhelmingly supports strong protections for the marine mammals that call U.S. waters home," said marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute. "Changing the core nature of the law to allow killing of sea lions for the crime of being sea lions - for taking advantage of dams and structures we put in the salmon's way, making it easier for predators to catch them - is politically expedient but biologically indefensible."
The House version of the bill was sponsored by Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash, and co-sponsored by, among others, Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers who represents much of eastern Washington. Jared Powell, a spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, said the bill could come up for a vote on Tuesday or Wednesday.
"If we are putting it on the floor, we feel good about it passing," Herrera Beutler said.
The Senate version was referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, where it has yet to have a hearing.