SEATTLE — U.S. authorities on Friday gave wildlife managers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho permission to start killing hundreds of sea lions in the Columbia River basin in hopes of helping struggling salmon and steelhead trout.
The mammals long ago figured out that they could feast on the migrating fish where they bottleneck at dams or where they head up tributaries to spawn.
“These are places where the fish are really vulnerable,” said Shaun Clements, senior policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We have to manage this so the fish can get through to spawn.”
The new permit allows the states and several Native American tribes to kill 540 California sea lions and 176 Steller sea lions over the next five years along a 180-mile stretch of the Columbia, from Portland to the McNary Dam upriver, and in several tributaries.
The sea lions, whose populations generally are healthy, have posed a long-running conundrum for wildlife officials, pitting mammals protected under federal law against protected — and valuable — fish runs. Complicating matters is that Columbia River salmon are a key food source for the Pacific Northwest’s endangered population of orcas, which scientists say are at risk of extinction if they don’t get more sustenance.
Over the last few decades, authorities have tried all kinds of less-lethal methods to deter the sea lions, including traps, rubber bullets and explosives, to no avail. They would return days after being relocated miles away.
Authorities began killing some California sea lions at the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River about 13 years ago, under restrictions that required them to first document each targeted animal in the area five times, observe it eating salmon and wait for it to enter a trap. Some 238 have been killed there.
Under changes to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, authorities will no longer face such restrictions. They will be able to tranquilize, capture or trap sea lions in the area, then bring them to another location to give them a lethal injection.