On Thursday U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg denied a request that sea lion trapping below the lower Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam be stopped while recently filed litigation plays out. The judge’s order did alter the rules for the planned lethal removal effort. He said the federal authorization for the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington will be limited to the lethal removal this year of 30 California sea lions, none of which may be killed by shooting.
The limitation will apply while the pending the case plays out or until further order of the court the judge said. The pending Federal authorization approved March 15 by NOAA Fisheries would allow for the removal of up to 92 California sea lions and the use of firearms as a removal tool.
Federal and state officials have said they don’t believe it is likely they could trap more 30 animals a year. Removal is only allowed for animals that have been specifically identified as habitually preying on protected salmon and steelhead in the waters below the dam, located at river mile 146.
The states contend that sea lion predation below the dam and elsewhere in the river is in conflict to some degree the extensive efforts being taken to improve fish survival and move toward the recovery of salmon and steelhead which are listed under the Endangered Species Act.
The Humane Society of the United States has maintained, now and in related litigation dating back to 2008, sea lions are natural predators and kill fewer fish than other legal causes of mortality like fishing and the operation of the hydro system.
The Humane Society contends that sea lion removals won’t help because more marine mammals will continue to migrate to the dam. Historically only a few California sea lions travel up the river each year to feast on salmon spawners below the dam as they search for the fish ladders. Shortly after the turn into this century the number of California sea lions that gather below the dam each spring grew to problematic levels. The peak count of “individually identifiable” California sea lions below the dam was 104 in 2003, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers researchers at Bonneville. The research, started in 2002, aims to evaluate pinniped impact on salmon.
NOAA Fisheries first approved a state application for lethal removal authority on the Columbia River in 2008. Between 2008 and 2010, amidst numerous legal skirmishes, a total of 38 California sea lions were removed, including 10 that were placed in zoos or aquariums. The 2008 lethal removal decision under the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s Section 120 was declared illegal in 2010 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
NOAA Fisheries received a second Section 120 application from the states last year and in May 2011 issued an approval the agency said fixed the legal flaws noted by the appeals court. But, with litigation ongoing, the agency opted in July to revoke the 2011 lethal removal authorization. The states in August filed a third application and NOAA announced its approval of the plan March 15. The authorization under Section 120 became effective on March 20 and is designed to stay in effect until the end of May 2016.
The Humane Society filed a complaint and request for preliminary injunction with the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C on March 20; the day the sea lion removal program was slated to begin. Two days later the organization filed the request for a temporary injunction that would prevent lethal removals in the near term. The states and federal government agreed to postpone implementation until the TRO request could be debated in court. Judge Boasberg convened a hearing on Thursday morning on the issue and issued his order later in the day.
The sea lion males wander north from California and Mexico to forage following their breeding season, have not arrived at the dam in large numbers yet. Through Wednesday only seven individually identifiable California sea lions had been spotted at the dam so far this year; of the seven, five have been seen feeding at the dam in past years.
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