Growing sea lion population near Bonneville Dam continues to thr - KPTV - FOX 12

Growing sea lion population near Bonneville Dam continues to threaten salmon populations

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The battle over salmon and sea lions in the Columbia River is headed back to congress as lawmakers, biologists and conservation groups try to figure out how best to save dwindling salmon runs.

Biologists say in the early 2000s, they suspect a heavy smelt run in the river brought in hungry sea lions. The animals found a haven for salmon and have been coming back in droves ever since, some even staying year-round.

The growing population has been a concern for years. A bill in the U.S. House of Representatives would give local governments and wildlife managers the ability to kill more of the problem sea lions.

“As fisherman, we lose fish to sea lions pretty regularly,” Greg Drais said.

Drais, who has been fishing the Columbia River for the better part of 60 years, says over the last 15 years they have seen more and more sea lions headed up river. 

“They are up here threatening our runs of salmon and steelhead. Oregon says that if something isn’t done on the Willamette they are going to destroy the winter run steelhead in that river,” Drais said.

Hazing, trapping and relocating the animals hasn’t been much success. 

“They are a bad problem,” Drais said.

Citing a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says every year since 2004, California see lions have consumed 3,000 to 3,500 salmon and steelhead just below Bonneville Dam.

In April 2017, Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-WA) and Congressman Kurt Schrader (D-OR) introduced legislation that would increase the number of sea lions that could be killed, and stream line the permitting process. 

Currently roughly 92 permits can be issued a year. The number is one percent of the annual potential biological removal level, or the maximum number of animals, that may be taken or killed while allowing them to reach or maintain a sustainable population.

The proposed legislation would change that to 10 percent, meaning roughly 900 permits could be issued. Biologists say they see about 200 different sea lions either returning or staying at the Bonneville Dam.

Wednesday afternoon Herrera Beutler and state officials from Oregon, Washington and different tribes along the Columbia discussed the issue.

“Animals are an incredibly important part of our life,” Herrera Beutler said, “but this is an eco-system that is out of whack, that is the problem we are going to lose these wild runs.”

She was on hand as workers at the dam motored up and down a small section of river channel in a boat hazing several sea lions with rubber bullets and underwater explosives. 

State fish and wildlife experts say the hazing hasn’t been effective. 

Herrera Beutler says the legislation proposed isn’t the only solution but says more permits and stream lining the process will help.

“There isn’t one magic bullet,” Herrera Beutler said, “there is no one answer but the reality is, the tools they have is the best.”

Opponents to the idea of killing the sea lions say there are other options available to reviving salmon populations. One of those ideas is to remove several dams on the Snake River further up the river basin to allow salmon to return to spawning grounds. 

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