Friday, October 13, 2006

The orca question

For people in the Puget Sound region, killer whales are more than just a nature story. They're also a political story.

Certainly, they’ve been in the news a lot more lately. The New York Times recently ran a lengthy feature on the problems they face, while the Seattle P-I this week has been running an in-depth report on orcas and the Sound that features the always-superb environmental reporting of Robert McClure, and revolves around an excellent series by M.L. Lyke about our longest-lived matriarch, the 90-year-old orca named "Granny."

Politics are plainly involved in any orca recovery effort, on a number of fronts. First, the effort will require federal funding and the active participation of the state's congressional delegation as well as state and local governments. There will many tough decisions to make about toxic-waste cleanup, estuary management, and salmon habitat recovery. Most of all, the ardent opponents of the whales’ listing as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act are well-moneyed development interests with considerable political clout -- and acting to save the whales will entail standing up to them.

So it's natural to wonder: Where do our politicians stand?

I tried surveying a number of congressional candidates in this election to try to get positions clarified, with mixed results; most of the state's politicians simply don't have it on their radars as a potential electoral issue.

So I decided to narrow it down to the most significant race in the state this year: the U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Maria Cantwell and her Republican challenger, former Safeco CEO Mike McGavick.

Cantwell's position on orca recovery, as it happens, couldn’t be clearer. As a senator, she’s been an aggressive advocate for both the research and habitat work. She also is an advocate for ocean cleanup and introduced a resolution opposing any return to commercial whaling.

McGavick, however, is something of a different story. His Web site stakes out a position on the Endangered Species Act that is essentially hostile and echoes the charges made by some of the ESA's most rabid "reformers" in Congress, such as Rep. Richard Pombo:
Reform the Endangered Species Act. This law is an example of well-intended legislation that has had unintended consequences at the local level. We all share the desire to protect species. However, the act has resulted in more battles over land use than species it has saved. The law penalizes those with species on their land instead of incenting conservation. The law must be reformed to use incentives rather than penalties to create conservation opportunities and actually save species.

This antagonism to the ESA emerged in the response I received from the McGavick campaign regarding his position on the orcas' listing -- though it is ameliorated to some extent by a lot of sincere words about how deeply he appreciates the orcas' presence:
Thank you for contacting us regarding Mike McGavick's views regarding the federal government's recent Endangered Species Act listing of the southern resident killer whale population.

Mike is in complete agreement with the vast majority of Puget Sound citizens who believe that the orca whales are a remarkable animal that have gained a special identity in the Puget Sound, and he supports continued university and federal research to better understand and address potential causes of their decline. Mike also supports current locally-based efforts to develop a conservation plan to ensure the long-term health of orca whales.

The reality, however, is that the issue is more complex than just orcas -- it includes recovering Puget Sound Chinook salmon (which are also currently listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act), better understanding the conditions and health of the Pacific Ocean and its interaction with the whales and their food, and monitoring actions to ensure they are cost-effect and to alter when needed through adaptive management.

With regard to the Endangered Species Act, this listing and all listing under ESA are not panaceas. Mike believes that the Act appears too often in recent years to have been used as a tool for lawyers and the courtroom at an enormous waste of resources and at the costly price of discouraging people to work together to protect species and the environment. We absolutely must balance these important protections with a strong Pacific Northwest economy -- that's why so many people love living and working in Washington. If the Endangered Species Act needs to be improved to do that, then we should improve it. Mike supports collaborative processes such as the Puget Sound Shared Salmon Strategy to allow local ownership in the difficult policy decisions required to recover species, but that we can do more, including better use of hatchery facilities to rebuild naturally-spawning salmon stocks and ensuring the harvest of Puget Sound and Columbia River salmon does not interfere with recovery.

On a side note, Mike does not support breaching dams on the Snake and Columbia River—which are an important clean, renewable source of energy for Washington residents. Moreover, we can and should do more in the Puget Sound to aid orcas. More must be done to reduce predation of young salmon, protecting habitat, utilizing hatcheries to protect wild salmon, understanding and managing around changes to ocean climate and conditions, and ensuring harvest doesn't interfere with rebuilding salmon runs.

The response was actually prepared by Megan Dawe, a research and communications assistant with the McGavick campaign.

What you'll notice, of course, is that it is artfully evasive: It doesn't tell us whether or not McGavick supports the ESA listing. But reading between the lines, it becomes clear that he does not. The only effort he expressly supports is the research and local efforts to help them. The ESA listing, as his previous position makes clear, is something he doesn’t support.

Much of what he does say is quite obvious: Of course the problem involves more than just killer whales. Of course Chinook are a critical cornerstone of orca recovery. And of course, the ESA listing is not a panacea. But it is a significant start -- the first and only serious step taken by any government agency -- local, state, or federal -- to seriously address the threats faced by the orcas. It also is the only chance that governmental intervention will have any kind of teeth whatsoever.

It’s also especially noteworthy that, even as he notes the critical role played by Chinook salmon in saving the orcas, McGavick forecloses on any possibility of tearing down the four dams on the Snake River that have had such a long-term role in devastating salmon runs in the Columbia River system.

But, as I explored in an article for the Seattle Weekly earlier this year, the orcas and the dams may well be connected: The resident killer whales appear to be most at risk of dying during the winter months, when they rely heavily on the stocks of Chinook salmon who populate the continental shelf within about 50 miles of the continent's shore. The primary source of those Chinook within that range, historically, has been the Columbia.

So it may turn out -- though no one knows for sure -- that in order to save the Puget Sound's killer whales, we’re going to have to restore Chinook runs on the Columbia to some semblance of their historic levels. And that simply isn't going to happen as long as those four dams are there. Foreclosing on the possibility of taking that step may, in fact, doom our orcas.

McGavick has a history of avoiding taking clear positions on the issues -- particularly issues that actually matter to people in Washington state -- and this one is no exception. But the totality of this response essentially comes down to the same as that taken by the Building Industry Association of Washington. When I interviewed their lawyer for the Weekly story, here's what he told me:
"It's not that we're against orcas or anything like that. ... It could be any other species. You know, we love orcas as much as anyone else. But here we believe there's a much larger legal issue that is at stake, and it just happens to involve orcas."

In other words: The orcas are nice to look at, but if they happen to get in the way of paving over every inch of Puget Sound, well, too bad for them. Making money for the construction industry and developers is much more important.

The same BIAW, of course, is the lead organization (along with the Farm Bureau) filing a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ESA listing.

And as it so happens, it's also the same BIAW that has so far donated thousands of dollars to McGavick's campaign.

But when I asked, McGavick's campaign responded that he "is not taking a position" regarding that lawsuit.

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