Coho Protection Focus of Suction Dredge Mining Suit

Mail Tribune by Mark Freeman

Three environmental groups are suing the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest for allegedly failing to protect threatened coho salmon from suction dredgers mining for gold in the Rogue River Basin's coho country.

Filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Medford, the suit seeks to require that NOAA-Fisheries biologists review suction dredging operations here to ensure they don't harm wild coho and their habitat before miners can operate on forest-managed streams.

The suit maintains that these reviews, called consultations, are required under the federal Endangered Species Act before dredgers can operate on federally designated wild coho habitat. That includes reaches of the Rogue and its tributaries accessible to coho, which were listed here as a threatened species in 1997.

Forest Service officials, however, did not undertake these consultations before approving suction dredging operations that could illegally damage wild coho spawning and rearing habitat, the suit states.

The suit comes on the heels of a June 1 ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that any Forest Service actions that impact wild coho must go through the consultation process with NOAA-Fisheries.

"If the Forest Service is going to say 'mine here' or 'don't mine here,' they have to follow the requirements of the Endangered Species Act," says George Sexton, conservation director of the Ashland-based Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

"There's a step here, consultation, that we're asking them to do," Sexton said.

The suit further seeks to ban suction dredging on Rogue River-Siskiyou forest streams until the consultations are completed.
The suit was filed "so mining on public lands is focused on areas where it does the least harm to endangered salmon," Sexton said.

"I think it's a values clash," he said. "It comes down to what people value public lands for."

Forest spokeswoman Virginia Gibbons declined Tuesday to comment on the lawsuit, which Forest Service officials were reviewing.

Gibbons also declined to discuss any aspect of the forest's dredging program, including how many miners were authorized to dredge each of the past three years and how many miners were denied operation.

Cascadia Wildlands and the Ashland-based Rogue Riverkeeper groups joined the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center as plaintiffs in the suit. The civil case was assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Owen Panner.

The rising price of gold and a ban on suction dredging in California has created a surge in dredging in the Rogue Basin, including Forest Service-land streams such as Sucker Creek and Althouse Creek in Josephine County.

Under the current program, would-be miners looking to dredge streams on Forest Service lands must file notices of intent to dredge. The suit claims the Forest Service approved or authorized such dredging without consulting with NOAA-Fisheries, despite the agency in 1997 identifying dredging and mining in general as activities that may require special management considerations for wild coho.

Dredges can remove or destabilize spawning gravel and cause undue turbidity – factors that can reduce wild fish production, according to the suit.