August 27, 2008
New Details Shed Little Light on Sea Lion Deaths
By ERIK ROBINSON
Sea lions sit in two traps on the Columbia River near Bonneville Dam on April 24, shortly before the doors closed, trapping them for removal.
The deaths of six sea lions at Bonne-ville Dam remains a whodunit.
On May 4, six carcasses were discovered in a pair of side-by- side floating traps below the dam. State employees had been using the traps to capture and relocate sea lions feasting on endangered salmon at a man-made bottleneck.
Federal and state authorities initially speculated that the animals had been shot.
The revelation gained widespread media attention, with suspicion centering on fishermen upset by sea lions devouring salmon at the dam.
But officials backed away from that assertion a week later after revealing that investigators found no fresh bullet wounds. They eventually told the public that the animals probably died of heat stroke while trapped in the cages.
The federal investigation remains open almost four months later, to the irritation of some fishermen who believe they were falsely maligned.
"Given how quick officials were to blame the sportfishing community, it's just incorrigible they're this slow to find and deal with the accountability for this issue," said Liz Hamilton, executive director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association in Portland. "It's sort of like that retraction that gets printed on Page 32, and the original story is on Page One."
Officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service, in responding to a federal Freedom of Information Act request from The Columbian, declined to release necropsy reports or other documents related directly to the investigation. Officials said the information will remain confidential while the investigation remains open.
"The last thing cops want to do is compromise an investigation by releasing stuff prematurely," said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service in Seattle.
Jaime Pinkham, a representative of the Columbia River Inter- Tribal Fish Commission in Portland, said tribal fishermen felt vindicated when authorities backed off initial reports that the animals had been shot. He said the commission will be patient and await the final results of the investigation by the fisheries service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"Our interest is that NOAA gets it right," Pinkham said. "If it's going to take a little longer, we just want to make sure that it's done right."
Plenty of questions remain unanswered.
The animals reportedly died of heat stroke, but it's not uncommon for sea lions to be out of the water for longer periods of times - and temperatures were mild the night of May 3-4.
It's also unclear how the sea lions became trapped in the cages in the first place.
Washington and Oregon fish and wildlife officers placed the traps at the dam in late March as part of a program to trap and relocate nuisance sea lions. The cages normally remained open, allowing sea lions to freely come and go until officers sprung the traps by yanking on ropes.
"Initially, someone triggered the gates on the traps to close," Gorman said. "Whether it was someone with criminal intent or someone who just thought he was doing the guys a favor, we don't know."
Gorman emphasized that he doesn't know whether fisheries service investigators continue to focus on people with access to the dam, such as employees of the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Bonneville.
"The gates had to have closed simultaneously or nearly simultaneously," Gorman said. "The assumption is, if one trap had closed, the noise of the trap closing and the animals in it would have caused the animals in the other trap to bolt."
The trap doors were controlled by ropes leading from the docks to tie-offs above on Cascade Island, raising the possibility that fluctuating river levels might have pulled the ropes taut and triggered the doors on their own. But river levels overnight fluctuated only about 4 feet, according to records NMFS released to The Columbian.
That's within a normal range, according to federal officials.
The Columbian asked for e-mails, necropsy reports and other investigative documents on June 25.
Last week, the newspaper received a cardboard box containing a 3- inch-thick sheaf of paper. Most of it turned out to be the minute- by-minute account of the fluctuating river level below the dam.
Other than the river level grid, much of the remaining information was already publicly available and even included news stories. The documents included some copies of e-mails, mainly between public affairs officers rather than investigators, but even many of those were blacked out.
Some hinted at tantalizing clues.
One, authored by a public affairs officer in Maryland, includes an update of contacts the agency had with various news outlets over the sea lion deaths. The e-mail from public affairs officer Connie Barclay indicates some insight about the investigation, but the key detail is withheld, citing an exemption under the Freedom of Information Act:
"In addition, there is some information coming out that suggest that the sea lions at the Bonneville dam may have been killed by (whited out by government censor)."
Previously: State authorities suspended a trap-and-relocate program for salmon-eating sea lions after six turned up dead near Bonneville Dam on May 4. Federal officials said the animals probably died of heat stroke, after initially saying they appeared to have been shot.
What's new: The federal investigation remains an open case almost four months later.
What's next: Federal officials offered no insight about when or whether the investigation will be closed. Meanwhile, a federal court hearing will be held the first week in September over a lawsuit by the Humane Society of the United States seeking to block a lethal- removal permit for nuisance sea lions.
Erik Robinson can be reached at 360-735-4551, or
Originally published by ERIK ROBINSON Columbian staff writer.
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