PORTLAND — A federal judge will decide by the end of May whether to stop the government from killing sea lions that eat endangered wild salmon bottled up at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon heard more than three hours of arguments Tuesday on an injunction request from The Humane Society of the United States. The group wants to keep sea lions alive while its suit against the killing goes through the court system.
Much of Tuesday's hearing was devoted to interpretations about the number of salmon eaten by sea lions and whether it represents a "significant negative impact" compared to the numbers taken by fishermen.
Sea lions have been eating fewer salmon in recent years, and it is "completely disingenuous" for the government to add the animals to a hit list while allowing fishermen to increase their take, Ralph Henry, a Humane Society lawyer, said.
But government and tribal lawyers said fishermen [--] unlike sea lions take mostly hatchery fish, not protected by the Endangered Species Act, because they can identify them from a clipped fin. The lawyers also noted that the government has taken steps over the years to limit the damage to salmon caused by fishing and hydroelectric power.
"They all have adverse effects and they're all being managed," Justice Department attorney Michael Eitel told the judge.
The hearing was the latest in a lengthy legal battle over a program that allows the fish and wildlife departments in Idaho, Oregon and Washington to kill sea lions that eat endangered salmon. Nine sea lions have died by lethal injection this spring, and almost 50 have been killed or relocated since the program started in 2008.
The program had a one-year hiatus in 2011, after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the killings.
NOAA's Fisheries Service renewed the program in March, authorizing Washington, Oregon and Idaho agencies to kill up to 92 animals annually for the next four years. A Washington D.C. judge then limited the killing to a maximum of 30 per year and said the sea lions couldn't be killed by gunshot.
Early in Tuesday's hearing, Judge Simon told the Humane Society lawyer he would have a "tough road to hoe" in winning the injunction because the killings won't threaten the sea lion species and plaintiffs need to prove that significant harm was imminent.
California sea lions are federally protected as marine mammals, but not as endangered or threatened species. Each spring, they swim about 145 upriver to the Bonneville Dam, where they feed on salmon. Authorities keep close track of which sea lions are eating a lot of salmon, and target the worst offenders for capture and lethal injection.