The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has decided to list the Atlantic salmon populations on the Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin rivers as endangered species under the Federal Endangered Species Act. This action demonstrates once again that eco-politics, not common sense, dominates federal decision-making.

The listing is a slap in the face to so many in Maine who have been involved in Atlantic salmon conservation efforts. The governor said it well: “This federal action ignores Maine’s strong track record in species management and our need for a flexible approach which will enable us to use all our tools to work with stakeholders to manage Atlantic salmon.”

The governor went on to say that “the extreme approach chosen by the federal government hamstrings the state’s ability to use creative conservation efforts that have been successful in the past.”

What are the implications of this decision for Maine? Nobody knows for sure at this point, but the early indications are that this act of federal overreach will have negative, far-reaching effects. According to the Bangor Daily News, the listing means that 12,000 miles of Maine rivers and streams and 300 square miles of lake habitat will be designated critical habitat. Past experience teaches us that this will mean more federal oversight on private development, hydropower, agriculture, forestry practices, and, quite possibly, fish stocking in recreational sport fisheries.

Marvin Moriarty, a spokesman for USFWS, issued some words of reassurance. He said that “recreational fishing for other species in the Penobscot and other tributaries should not be affected.” He also hinted that USFWS would work closely with Maine interests to try to minimize the impact of the ESA listing on our state’s economy. Sure, Mr. Moriarty. If you consider what the lynx listing has meant to Maine, and what it has cost us in lawsuits, predator control options, deer population recovery and trapping opportunities, the Moriarty pledge just doesn’t pass the straight face test.

What Moriarty didn’t tell us is that his agency has no jurisdiction over single-minded environmental organizations that love to litigate and exploit the Endangered Species Act whenever opportunity presents itself. As we saw with the lynx, the ESA listing provides additional new opportunities for extreme environmental groups. It’s like tossing raw meat to a hungry lion.

What makes all of this so irksome is the seeming futility of trying to save the wild strains of Atlantic salmon that once populated our largest rivers. Look at the facts:

1. According to former salmon scientist Ed Baum, 97 million Atlantic salmon have been stocked in the Penobscot River over the last 100 years.

2. Over the years, American taxpayers have dumped untold millions of dollars into the Atantic salmon recovery program.

3. The U.S. and other countries have used tax dollars to pay commercial high-seas fishermen NOT to harvest Atlantic salmon.

4. Industry and government have made admirable strides in improving water quality in our historic salmon rivers.

And yet, the historic salmon runs still don’t occur like they once did. In fact, more than 90 percent of the few salmon that do return to Maine’s historic salmon rivers are hatchery-reared fish.

Atlantic salmon scientist Ed Baum is applauding the federal decision to list the salmon as endangered. He believes it should have been done a long time ago. In his book, Atlantic Salmon — A National Treasure, Baum writes,”In my opinion, stocking is not the answer to sustainable and increasing Atlantic salmon runs in Maine rivers.” On my Sunday night radio program, Maine Outdoors, Baum strongly disagreed with those who contend that there are so many hatchery-reared fish that there is no longer a unique genetic strain to protect. Baum said that the question was subjected to peer review by a group of national scientists who concluded that there was a “distinct population segment” warranting protection.

In this conflict of priorities, there is a bedrock philosophical dichotomy that only time can sort out: Is the Atlantic salmon, like thousands of other species, simply destined by nature for extinction, or is man, indeed, the culprit with the redemptive power to save the species? Depending on your point of view, our willingness to sacrifice so much to save a fish is either an act of well-intentioned enlightenment or utter delusional social arrogance.

Where do you stand? As a pure political choice, the ESA listing by USFWS is an unwise move. The feds have lost, for the most part, the best ally they have had in Maine Atlantic salmon conservation — the salmon angling clubs.

Baum is right to this extent. The Atlantic salmon is a national treasure. For an angler, it is the ultimate piscatorial pursuit. But sooner or later there comes a time when you must accept the futility of lost causes and diminishing returns. If we are not already there, we are getting awfully close.

V. Paul Reynolds is editor of the Northwoods Sporting Journal. He is also a Maine Guide, co-host of a weekly radio program “Maine Outdoors” heard Sundays at 7 p.m. on The Voice of Maine News-Talk Network (WVOM-FM 103.9, WQVM 101.3) and former information officer for the Maine Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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