Animal activists claim sea lion died after branding by Oregon agency

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SEATTLE — Sea Shepherd activists claim that a California sea lion branded Sunday by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife died Tuesday in the lower Columbia River from the aftereffects of the marking operation.They say that the distressed sea lion dipped below the surface of the Columbia River and did not reappear. They say the animal drowned.

Ashley Lenton, a Sea Shepherd campaign leader, said the sea lion observed Tuesday had been branded Sunday, and was struggling to stay afloat before it disappeared into the river.

Jessica Sall, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, questioned whether the sea lion died. She said the animals can stay underwater for five to 10 minutes and surface hundreds of yards away from where they went under.

Sall said that a state biologist who watched a Sea Shepherd video of the sea lion's movements did not notice any signs of distress. Branding does not cause permanent harm to animals, she said, adding that she was unaware of any deaths caused by branding involving some 1,400 sea lions marked since 1997.

Sea Shepherd activists on Sunday photographed flames during the branding process, and said some sea lions appeared to be in great pain after the marking.

The brands are used to help track the sea lions off the West Coast, as well as those that prey on salmon below Bonneville Dam. Sall said brands are used instead of tags because the brands are much easier for biologists to identify at a distance.

The Sea Shepard Conservation Society activists are opposed to a state-led effort to kill sea lions that feed on salmon, some of which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.