Engagement and Challenges in Advocacy: Experiences from the Western United States

Lori M. Martin, Past President, Western Division of the American Fisheries Society; Colorado Parks and Wildlife, 711 Independent Avenue, Grand Junction, CO 81505. E-mail: [email protected]

Leanne H. Roulson, Chair, American Fisheries Society, Resource Policy Committee; HydroSolutions Inc., Bozeman, MT

Hilda Sexauer, Past President, Western Division of the American Fisheries Society; Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Pinedale, WY

Water bodies are used globally for multiple purposes, including water supplies, energy development, transportation, and recreation. Regulatory systems exist to evaluate those uses and their potential or resulting environmental impacts, including alteration of aquatic ecosystems. Often, these evaluations involve American Fisheries Society (AFS) members, who are vexed when the resulting regulatory or policy decisions ignore the best scientific information provided and instead rely on political influences. There are also instances where fisheries experts may feel compelled to make decisions that ignore the best scientific information out of fear of retribution within their workplace or from other political entities when assessing proposed actions that may alter aquatic ecosystems. Determining when and how to contest a decision counter to the best available science can be difficult. The AFS and its Units can assist their members by providing effective procedures (e.g., resolutions, comment letters) that address those environmental concerns, thereby both protecting individuals and providing the best and most scientifically accurate information for decision makers.

Fisheries management inherently includes making decisions regarding how fisheries and aquatic habitats will be sustained and protected. The wealth of experience and knowledge within AFS can be a resource for seasoned and new professionals when contentious environmental issues arise. As AFS members, we are justly concerned with our reputation as objective scientists, in particular when a decision regarding a project ignores or is contrary to substantial evidence, current scientific information, analysis, and/or conclusions. Our responsibility as aquatic scientists is to identify and communicate such discrepancies, and to document and emphasize critical data when making fishery management decisions.

Advocating for fisheries and aquatic systems by addressing environmental issues and policies is no easy task, and often presents multiple challenges and difficulties. Complications involve staying apprised and informed of current environmental concerns, and possessing readily available resources to develop a timely and effective response. American Fisheries Society members must also determine how to actively participate without incurring unpleasant repercussions from their employers or communities. Fortunately, various AFS Units, including AFS Chapters and Divisions, have Environmental Concerns and/or Resource Policy committees to assist in overcoming these challenges. For example, the Resource Policy and Environmental Concerns Committee (RPECC) of the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society (WDAFS) was recently revived and restructured to include at least one member from each Chapter, preferably those concurrently serving as chair of the Chapter’s comparable RPECC. The restructuring of the RPECC will ensure: (1) identification of potential and time-sensitive environmental concerns by providing broader oversight within multiple geographical areas in a timely manner, (2) engagement by professionals with the appropriate expertise who are most familiar with the issue of interest, (3) determination of the most appropriate target audience (AFS, the public, decision makers, etc.) and mode of response when informing and educating WDAFS members on emerging environmental issues, and (4) assistance by various AFS Units and other organizations in developing the appropriate actions to address resource concerns.

Five screening considerations are needed before addressing potential environmental issues to determine the best course of action. These considerations include whether (1) the topic is pertinent to fisheries within the geographic boundaries of the Division or Chapter, (2) the actions taken are likely to influence the decision process, (3) the Unit members are supportive of advancing the action, (4) the Unit is willing to provide contact information for those scientists directly involved in the environmental review, and (5) those scientists are willing to impart accurate, unbiased, science-based information prior to determining the appropriate mode of response. Completing those five steps is crucial to ensuring the most suitable course of action.

Within AFS, multiple options are available to all members interested in developing advocacy positions. Actions may include drafting comment letters, resolutions, position and/or policy papers, and legislative briefings; developing an educational forum; or potentially pursuing litigation (Poole et al. 2017, this issue). An independent review panel may be solicited in some situations. The selected action should take into consideration the intended audience. The best and most effective approach for one action may not be the most appropriate for another. The following advocacy examples demonstrate how the WDAFS and its respective Chapters have engaged in issues involving lower Snake River dams, a proposed Intake Diversion Dam on the lower Yellowstone River in Montana, and amendments to the Federal Power Act.

Aquatic scientists from the Oregon and Idaho Chapters of AFS shared a resolve to restore Snake River salmon and steelhead Oncorhynchus mykiss, and were concerned about retaliation from their employers for advocating science-based positions. Those AFS members have used the WDAFS to escalate science based positions on fisheries rehabilitation objectives. Their communication and collaborations have produced a number of WDAFS resolutions and reviews pertinent to the recovery of Columbia River basin fish runs and fisheries over the course of almost 20 years. In 1999, when the WDAFS resolved to rehabilitate Snake River salmon and steelhead in their native ecosystem, one biologically required action involved breaching the lower Snake River dams. Several years later, a special WDAFS committee was formed to review the 2004 Biological Opinion on the Federal Columbia River Power System. In 2010, this same group evaluated the Adaptive Management Implementation Plan (AMIP) issued by the federal government in September 2009 as an addition to the 2008 Biological Opinion for the Federal Columbia River Power System (WDAFS 2010). The intent of the AMIP review was to inform WDAFS members and to benefit the parties involved in litigating the 2008 Biological Opinion, thereby increasing the opportunity for recovery of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River basin (WDAFS 2010). All of those actions were completed under the auspices of the WDAFS, enabling AFS members closest to this polarizing topic to respond without fear of reprisal.

Most recently, WDAFS members combined previous resolutions by the Idaho and Oregon Chapters of AFS (ICAFS 1999; ORAFS 2000), as well as the 1999 WDAFS resolution related to the lower Snake River dams into a 2011 resolution (WDAFS 2011). The 2011 resolution stated that the four lower Snake River dams and reservoirs are a significant threat to the continued existence of remaining Snake River salmon, steelhead, Pacific Lamprey Entosphenus tridentatus, and White Sturgeon Acipenser transmontanus (WDAFS 2011). The WDAFS membership approved the resolution through electronic voting, declaring that the lower Snake River must be returned to a free-flowing condition by comprehensive planning and implementation using appropriate techniques and management practices in a timely manner (WDAFS 2011). The WDAFS provided the 2011 Snake River resolution to federal and state agencies, tribes, and elected or appointed officials and posted it on the WDAFS website (wdafs.org). Further, a press release was prepared by the WDAFS, alerting the media and the general public to the WDAFS’s 2011 efforts to recover the fisheries of the Columbia River basin. Those endeavors by Chapter and WDAFS members over the past two decades have resulted in positive publicity for the fishes of the lower Snake River and the Columbia River basin overall.

Another example of a WDAFS Unit’s engagement in environmental issues is the Montana Chapter’s (MTAFS) participation in the environmental review process for the Intake Diversion Dam modification project on the lower Yellowstone River. The Intake Diversion Dam is a 1900s-era low-head, rock weir dam that raises the river water elevation to divert water from the Yellowstone River through the recently reconstructed headworks to a main irrigation canal. The dam has effectively impeded passage for several native fishes in all but the highest flow water years. The proposed modifications would harden the dam with concrete and raise its elevation by approximately 2 ft. The MTAFS’s involvement began with a simple solicitation from its Resource Management Concerns Committee (RMCC) for issues of interest in 2013. Several biologists expressed concerns that the diversion dam modifications did not account for the migratory needs and biology of the federally listed Pallid Sturgeon Scaphirhynchus albus and other native fishes. Concerns generated by the RMCC included (1) contingencies for fish passage success were not addressed, (2) biological criteria were not incorporated into the design, and (3) long-term agency accountability for fish passage success was not considered (Campbell 2013). After identifying those concerns, the RMCC wrote a letter regarding the Intake Diversion Dam supplemental environmental assessment. The letter was submitted in April 2014 to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the two lead agencies for the environmental assessment (MTAFS 2014). Under the National Environmental Policy Act, those public comments became part of the project record, and the decision-making agency was required to acknowledge (at a minimum) and address substantive comments.

Nearly a year later, the MTAFS was approached by an environmental organization intending to litigate the project. This group requested that the MTAFS provide fisheries expertise regarding critical issues and concerns of the project. An additional goal of the RMCC was to ensure that their comments and concerns emphasized the MTAFS support for irrigators’ water rights and did not undermine the local biologist’s ability to work in this small community.

The RMCC organized a panel for the 2015 MTAFS annual meeting to discuss the potential impacts of the Intake Diversion Dam modification on Pallid Sturgeon. The panel provided the MTAFS membership with the scientific background on the species, project progress, the RMCC’s work, and options for the next steps from people who understood the legal process. The RMCC worked with the MTAFS’ Executive Committee (EXCOM) to develop motions for the MTAFS business meeting to request a vote as to whether, and to what extent, the MTAFS should become involved in the lawsuit.

The discussion at the 2015 MTAFS business meeting was animated, and addressed many of the issues brought up in this advocacy series. The MTAFS membership voted to participate in a supporting role in the litigation, and directed the EXCOM to take necessary actions in support of the case, consistent with those MTAFS positions documented previously. The MTAFS remained an active participant through several stages in the process, including commenting on the final environmental impact statement, issued in October 2016 (BLM and USACE 2016). The key elements that allowed the membership to feel comfortable in this endeavor were: (1) helpful and timely information on the issue and the biology from respected peers, (2) an opportunity for all members to be heard through a poll to determine whether there was interest in participating in the environmental review of Intake Diversion Dam, (3) limitations set by the RMCC as to the extent of involvement and issues to be addressed, and (4) transparent and open lines of communication provided through full discussion at the MTAFS annual meeting.

The WDAFS’s third example is the draft legislation to amend the Federal Power Act by the U.S. Congress in 2015. The amendments included language that would accelerate pending hydropower projects through the approval process. The new language also included changes in the conditioning process and timelines, and shifted decision making regarding aquatic resources from state and other federal agencies to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Those amendments would have removed checks and balances provided by agencies tasked with managing potentially affected resources, such as fisheries, water, and wildlife, and transfer these roles to FERC, the agency mandated to permit energy projects. If enacted, the legislation would allow hydroelectric operators to avoid complying with the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and other federal and tribal land management laws.

This proposed legislation garnered the attention of AFS fisheries professionals across the United States. The WDAFS and AFS have a long history with hydropower projects, dams, and their environmental consequences. The respected professional expertise and wealth of knowledge of aquatic scientists within the WDAFS and AFS were solicited by several nongovernmental organizations seeking to address proposed changes within the hydropower legislation evaluation process. The WDAFS’s EXCOM and the AFS officers and executive director opted to develop their own respective comments, separate from the remarks of the groups that had approached the WDAFS and AFS. The WDAFS approach alleviated any potential negative repercussions to the members of AFS Chapters who were closely tied to hydropower projects, retaining a unified voice from the WDAFS. Letters were submitted by AFS and the WDAFS to the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May 2015. In the interim, the WDAFS and AFS learned that other entities also voiced their concerns, including the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and several western states. Though each organization and state approached its review of the draft legislation differently, several critical components of the proposed laws were highlighted consistently, including: (1) the increased level of evidence required from resource management agencies to demonstrate the need for fish passage and evaluation of conditions prior to dam construction and the role of FERC making those decisions, (2) the proposed shortening of the licensing timeline, resulting in reduced data collection, and (3) the evaluation of dam operation and impacts on fish populations being conducted by energy specialists, rather than fisheries scientists. Collaboration by the WDAFS, AFS, other professional organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and western states were successful in changing some language within the draft hydropower legislation to benefit aquatic resources.

The WDAFS and Chapters, working together or independently, have assisted their members in developing effective avenues to address the lower Snake River dams, the proposed Intake Diversion Dam on the Yellowstone River, and proposed hydropower amendments to the Federal Power Act, providing pertinent information while reducing the potential for retribution from their employers. Consequentially, those actions, including the development and organization of letters, resolutions, educational panels, and policy statements, brought environmental concerns across the West to the attention of a broader audience. Participants in the efforts mentioned have received feedback from judges and government representatives that contributions from AFS Chapters and Divisions have greater professional authority than individual comments because of the scientific reputation of AFS. This reputation is well earned, and applying our collective knowledge to improving resource decisions is a valid way for AFS to promote and demonstrate the use of “best available science.” The WDAFS website provides its members with examples of pathways to take to address their environmental concerns. Writing a letter or a resolution may not seem like an effective action, yet the connections and discussions leading up to those documents often result in additional achievements and increased awareness of important projects and issues. The dispersal of scientific-based information is what leads to positive action and change. American Fisheries Society Units are an excellent conduit for vetting, evaluating, advocating for, and directing appropriate scientific responses to current policy events. We encourage you to engage your respective AFS leaders in supporting and promoting our aquatic biota and their habitats.


We appreciate the critical reviews and comments of three anonymous reviewers and Bob Hughes, Guest Editor.


BLM (U.S. Bureau of Reclamation) and USACE (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). 2016. Lower Yellowstone intake diversion dam fish passage project, Montana. USBOR and USACE, final environmental impact statement, Billings, Montana. Available: https://usbr.gov/gp/ mtao/loweryellowstone/EIS/2016feis.pdf. (December 2016).

Campbell, G. 2013. Letter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Lower Yellowstone intake dam modification, fish passage improvement. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Great Plains Regional Office, GP-4200, ENV-6.00, Billings, Montana.

ICAFS (Idaho Chapter of the American Fisheries Society). 1999. Resolution on the role of dams and Snake River salmon and steelhead recovery. IDAFS, Gillraker Gazette 19(2). Available: http://idahoafs.org/ newsletters/1999-05.pdf. (March 2016).

MTAFS (Montana Chapter of the American Fisheries Society). 2014. Letter on the Yellowstone River intake diversion dam supplemental environmental assessment. Available: http://fisheries.org/docs/wp/Intake-dam_Comments_Montana-Chapter-AFS-2014.pdf. (May2017).

ORAFS (Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society). 2000. Resolution on Snake River salmon and steelhead recovery. ORAFS, Portland, Oregon. Available: orafs.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Resolution-2000-Snake-River.pdf. (March 2016).

Poole, T., T. E. Bigford, and O. Mulvey-McFerron. 2017. Shaping AFS advocacy based on history and need. Fisheries 42:357–360.

WDAFS (Western Division of the American Fisheries Society). 2010. Review of the 2009 adaptive management implementation plan for the 2008 biological opinion regarding the federal Columbia River power system. Available: wdafs.org/download/resolutions/WDAFS%20Review%20of%20AMIP.pdf (Accessed March 2016).

WDAFS (Western Division of the American Fisheries Society). 2011. Resolution on the role of dams and conservation of Snake River salmon, steelhead, Pacific Lamprey, and White Sturgeon. Available: wdafs.org/download/resolutions/Western%20Division%20AFS%20Snake%20River%20Resolution%202011%20Final.pdf. (March 2016).

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