Non-Profits Ask Judiciary to Intervene on Behalf of Endangered Trout

Last week plaintiffs Willamette Riverkeeper and The Conservation Angler filed suit in the District of Oregon against several federal agencies for allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by making decisions that threaten the ESA-listed species winter steelhead, the population of which has reportedly only declined since its 1999 ESA listing. In aid of the recovery of the species, the complainants request an order requiring agency compliance with applicable statutory obligations.

The complaint states that Willamette Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization that “focuses on protecting and restoring the resources of the Willamette River basin in Oregon.” The Conservation Angler self-describes as a “watch-dog” non-profit that “advocates for wild fish and fisheries, and advocates to protect and conserve wild steelhead, salmon, trout and char throughout their Pacific range.” The defendants are National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps of Engineers), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Fish and Wildlife Service) and several of their regional administrators.

The complaint details the life history of winter steelhead in the Willamette River and Basin, the history of the Corps of Engineers’ dam projects on the river impacting winter steelhead, and subsequent efforts to bolster the endangered fish’s populations. The complaint alleges that the Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s hatchery summer steelhead program has “jeopardized the continued existence of winter steelhead and resulted in the destruction and adverse modification of its critical habitat.” In particular, the filing points to ostensibly problematic angling regulations, direct competition with summer steelhead, high water temperatures, and low dissolved oxygen levels that compromise winter steelhead viability.

In addition, the plaintiffs contend, NMFS issued a biological opinion that erroneously found that the hatchery summer steelhead program does not jeopardize winter steelhead or impact their habitat. Relatedly, NMFS issued an “incidental take statement” that reportedly and improperly excludes measures that should be implemented to minimize these impacts. Further, the complaint explains, the same agency’s Hatchery and Genetic Management Plan (HGMP) for the hatchery summer steelhead program fails to consider the requisite factors. Accordingly, the decision to approve the hatchery program was unlawful, the plaintiffs argue.

The non-profits request declaratory relief, vacation of the agency-issued opinions relied upon in creating the hatchery summer steelhead program, and an order ceasing all releases of hatchery summer steelhead into areas of concern until the NMFS submits a lawful biological opinion or HGMP. The plaintiffs also request an award of their attorneys’ fees and costs.

Willamette Riverkeeper is represented by Western Environmental Law Center and in-house counsel.