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Wild salmon win respite in US court

Federal judges threaten to breach dams if the government has no recovery plan.

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The wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest – already at a fraction of their historic numbers and facing many threats, from sea lions to global warming – may be getting a reprieve.

A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling that threatens to breach the biggest threats to their survival – four major dams in the Columbia River basin – if the US government doesn't come up with a realistic recovery plan.

The decision, rendered last week by the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, represents the latest in a long line of court rulings throwing out salmon-recovery plans by White House administrations of both parties going back to 1993.

"I can strongly affirm that it is the policy of this administration to uphold the law faithfully," Bob Lohn, a regional administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said after the ruling. "But when the underlying issues are difficult or contentious, there is often great debate about what the law means or how it should be applied."

The salmon's recovery is complicated, however, by a variety of factors, including growing development and climate change.

The dams are particularly controversial. President Bush has said he would not consider breaching or taking out any of the dams, which provide power, irrigation, and barge transportation – all viewed as essential to the region's economy. Under the latest administration plan, the eight dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers (as well as the irrigation, flood control, and power generation they provide) are considered part of the landscape because they were built before the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. In other words, the administration argued, only the effects of dam operations and not the dams themselves should be considered under the Endangered Species Act.

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