Sen. Maria Cantwell is getting blasted this week for proposing to shoot up to 900 sea lions a year to help struggling salmon runs. She deserves the heat, because her bill is a way to avoid talking about the real predator.
Sen. Maria Cantwell suddenly is feeling the heat. No, not from any of her 28 (!) somnambulant or crackpot opponents in the upcoming election. But from her own base, the environmentalist left.
“Senator Cantwell is making a mockery of her own enviro record,” read one of hundreds — maybe thousands by now — of angry tweets directed at her this week.
Cantwell is in the metaphorical crosshairs for a bill of hers that would let the government put sea lions in the literal crosshairs. Last month Cantwell was one of two U.S. senators to sign onto a proposal, called, misleadingly, the Endangered Salmon Predation Prevention Act. It authorizes permits to shoot up to 900 sea lions a year on the Columbia River, ostensibly because they’re eating too many salmon.
The first problem for Cantwell is one of optics. The one other sponsor, Idaho Republican James Risch, is routinely ranked as the least green senator in the nation. Last year, the League of Conservation Voters gave Risch a perfect zero score for voting the wrong way on every environmental issue that came up.
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In less polarized times, maybe Cantwell would be getting points for “reaching across the aisle.” Not this year.
“Cantwell you can’t say you’re part of some ‘green clean team’ when you are joining forces with the dirty side,” read another of the tweets.
The bigger problem, though, is that killing one animal to try to save another is generally folly. Worse, it dances around the culpability of the real predator — which in this case is us, via our federal system of dams on the Columbia that we refuse to modify.
Interestingly the federal government is conducting another mass experiment right now in whether it works to “play God” like this with nature. Starting five years ago, wildlife biologists started shooting barred owls in what they billed as a last-ditch bid to save the northern spotted owl from going extinct.
The theory is the barred owls are plentiful and crowding out the spotted owls from their limited old-growth habitat (because we logged off the rest). So the government has to date shot and killed 1,633 barred owls, including in areas near Cle Elum.
That’s a lot of dead owls. So is it working?
“Initial experimental removals of Barred Owls had little measurable effect on occupancy and reproduction of Spotted Owls,” the surveys concluded after the first few years of shootings.
Maybe it will just take longer to see some positive results. Or maybe it’s hubris that we think we could anoint one species over another in the first place.
On the Columbia we have already shot and killed 5,576 cormorants, and used oil to destroy 6,181 of their nests, to try to stop the birds from feasting on salmon fry. Now the focus is shifting to culling the sea lions, who are camping out at the bottom of dams and hoovering up migrating fish.
But a challenge they’re having with the barred owls is once they kill off a nesting pair, what moves in is often another barred owl. So they have to shoot that one, too. It suggests that for this to work we may have to semi-permanently wander what’s left of the old-growth forests shooting thousands of barred owls to make a dent.
I’m just going to put this out there as a hunch: It’ll be the same story with the sea lions. We’re going to have to kill them by the thousands, too. Plus even if this helps the salmon, it will have unforeseen consequences — as predator-culling programs almost always do.
Cantwell deserves getting blasted for sponsoring this bill. Mostly because it’s yet another dodge of the real issues. In the case of the Columbia River’s endangered salmon, that would be dams, habitat degradation and fishing.
Addressing all that is admittedly as complicated as it gets. But we’ve been talking about what to do to help the Columbia salmon for nearly 30 years now. What has never happened — the one big thing left untried — is to make much of any change in the federal hydropower dam system.
I guess even the greenest senator finds it’s easier to take out our failures on things down the food chain.