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Bill seeks to allow tribes to kill salmon-eating sea lions

Sea lions

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Some Northwest Indian tribes would be allowed to kill a limited number of sea lions that prey on endangered salmon in the Columbia River under a bill introduced in Congress.

The bipartisan bill was introduced last weekend by U.S. House members Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Washington Republican, and Kurt Schrader, an Oregon Democrat.

If passed, the bill would allow the Warm Springs, Umatilla, Yakama, and Nez Perce tribes to kill some sea lions that are decimating endangered salmon runs during their return from the ocean to inland spawning grounds. Currently only the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho can kill sea lions along the river.

Last year, approximately 190 sea lions killed over 9,500 adult spring chinook within sight of Bonneville Dam, according to the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, Oregon.

That represented a 5.8 percent loss of the 2016 spring chinook run in just a quarter mile from Bonneville Dam, the commission said. The federal government estimated that up to 45 percent of the 2014 spring chinook run was potentially lost to sea lions in the 145 river miles between the Columbia River estuary and Bonneville Dam.

“The spring chinook loss, coupled with the growing sea lion population, has placed us in an emergency situation,” said Leland Bill, chairman of the commission.

Sea lion populations have surged since the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. There were about 30,000 California sea lions when the act passed, but the population has since grown to over 300,000.

A large number of the sea lions travel up the Columbia River to feast on migrating salmon, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The Humane Society of the United States, which has filed lawsuits in the past in a failed attempt to stop the sea lion hunts, did not immediately return a message from The Associated Press.

The three states have had federal authorization since 2008 to catch and euthanize California sea lions seen preying on salmon. The sea lions hunt salmon as they go over the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.

Since lethal removal efforts began in 2008, a total of 166 California sea lions have been removed from the river, said Charles Hudson of the commission. That’s far fewer than were authorized by the government for removal, Hudson said.

Efforts to chase the sea lions away using pyrotechnics and sea gates have failed.

The Yakama Nation applauded the bill.

“Twenty years ago we did not have a problem with large numbers of sea lions swimming 145 miles up the Columbia to Bonneville Dam to gorge themselves on salmon who have no choice but to use the fish ladders to get to their historic spawning grounds,” the tribe said in a press release. “This is a learned behavior by a limited number of sea lions that they have taught to others.”