Agency May Protect Coho|and Steelhead Habitat

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     WASHINGTON (CN) – Threatened Lower Columbia River coho salmon and Puget Sound steelhead trout populations may finally get critical habitat designation years after they were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plans to designate approximately 2,288 stream miles of freshwater and estuarine habitat in Oregon and Washington for the salmon, and approximately 1,880 stream miles of freshwater and estuarine habitat in Puget Sound, Wash., for the trout, according to the action.
     “The ESA requires [the agency] to designate critical habitat at the time of listing, or within one year if critical habitat is not determinable at that time. [The agency] listed Lower Columbia River coho in 2005 and Puget Sound steelhead in 2007,” according to the NOAA”s statement. At the time of the listings, the agency concluded that critical habitat was not determinable. A Jan. 11, 2011 advance notice of proposed rulemaking requested information and comments, and announced two public meetings on critical habitat for the fish.
     The current proposed designation excludes Native American tribal lands, areas covered by habitat conservation plans (HCPs), and, due to economic impacts, one of the 55 watersheds considered for the lower Columbia River coho and four of the 66 watersheds considered for the Puget Sound steelhead.
     The agency determined that the exclusions would not significantly interfere with the conservation efforts for the fish, or result in their extinction. The agency maintains that “the proposed Indian land exclusions involve stream reaches that are already managed by the tribes for salmonid conservation,” that “the HCP exclusions in particular may provide an incentive to other landowners to seek conservation agreements with [the agency],” and that the areas excluded for economic reasons are “deemed to be of low conservation value,” according to the notice.
     The agency estimated that the total economic cost of including all areas considered would be $818,739. With the exclusions, the agency estimated the total economic cost at $170,600, a savings of $648,139, according to the notice.
     Due to a 2012 amendment in how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the NOAA signify critical habitat, the proposal includes both the prior latitude-longitude coordinates method and the new maps and/or description method to delineate the habitat areas and aid in comparing overlapping areas designated for other salmon and steelhead populations in 2005, the notice said.
     The agency requests comments by April 15 and public hearing requests by Feb. 28.’