A bill backed by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler that allows for the lethal removal of sea lions on the Columbia and Willamette rivers appears to be showing results.
On Nov. 10, Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, visited the Bonneville Dam to hear from fish and wildlife experts about the effects of the Endangered Salmon and Fisheries Predation Prevention Act, which was signed into law in 2018.
Herrera Beutler, alongside Oregon Democrat Rep. Kurt Schrader, pushed for the legislation intended to keep salmon populations in regional rivers from extinction.
“It looks like the bill that (Herrera Beutler) and I worked so hard on is starting to bear fruit,” said Schrader, who also joined the tour.
Part of the tour included a visit on a barge to see equipment used while capturing sea lions. The Congressional representatives said they saw several sea lions during their stop.
“The wild salmon runs, they’ve been a buffet for these animals that are not native to the area,” Herrera Beutler said.
She mentioned success in preserving winter steelhead populations near Willamette Falls through the legislation. Before the bill was signed into law the area had a dire prognosis for salmon survival due to sea lion predation.
“We know within two years we’ve seen a reversal of the prediction of extinction in the Willamette, so we know we can replicate that here,” Herrera Beutler said.
Schrader said there were about 40 problem sea lions around Willamette Falls, but “now there’s almost none.”
Removal began on the Willamette and work on the Columbia River at the Bonneville Dam is “only now really getting up to speed,” Schrader said.
This year, the Congressional representatives were able to secure nearly $900,000 in federal funding for the removal.
Herrera Beutler said around a dozen sea lions have been removed around the dam with another dozen to go.
“We’re not talking hundreds and hundreds (of animals),” Herrera Beutler said.
Lethal removal of sea lions is necessary because if the animals were simply relocated, they would return to the areas where they find salmon, Herrera Beutler said.
“These are smart animals that have learned to come here. They know there are no natural predators,” Herrera Beutler said.
Schrader added fish and wildlife officials have tracked sea lions that were relocated to the Oregon coast, but ended back in the Columbia River a few days later.
“Relocation is not an option,” Schrader said.
Herrera Beutler said the animals’ intelligence will work in favor of those preserving salmon populations because the predators will learn that the river system is no longer a safe place to hunt.
“That was what was impressed onto us by the biologists, is that you don’t have to remove all of them. There is only a group that needs to be removed and that will send the message to the others,” Herrera Beutler said.
Herrera Beutler said biologists told the representatives that if the legislation went into effect sooner, the problems facing salmon populations would not be as great.
“We’ve got a great recovery for the pinniped population (including sea lions) here in the Pacific Northwest, way beyond people’s expectations. The bad news is now they’re moving out of the saltwater where they are supposed to be, up into our freshwater rivers and causing these problems,” Schrader said.
Herrera Beutler remarked on the combined support for the removal of sea lions, which crosses state boundaries.
“There are tribal leaders involved. There are Oregon and Washington fish and wildlife biologists involved. There are sports fishermen involved and recreational fishermen. Pretty much all river users are very vested,” Herrera Beutler said.
Schrader, a veterinarian, acknowledged that culling the sea lion population is not an ideal situation, but it is the one that has worked so far.
“When you have one species destroying another species, you have to take wildlife management actions to preserve that (population),” Schrader said.
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