Washington state loses big legal battle over salmon culverts

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision Friday could force the state to pay $2 billion to restore salmon habitat by removing barriers that block fish migration.

Washington state lost a major legal battle Friday that could force it to spend nearly $2 billion to restore salmon habitat by removing barriers blocking fish migration.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year affirmed a lower court’s 2013 ruling ordering the state to fix or replace hundreds of culverts — large pipes that allow streams to pass beneath roads but block migrating salmon.

Idaho and Montana joined Washington state in asking the appeals court to reconsider the case. The court declined to do so Friday, but several judges dissented from that decision, saying it should be reconsidered because of its significance.

“This is a win for salmon, treaty rights and everyone who lives here,” Lorraine Loomis, chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, said in a statement. The group represents 21 tribes in Western Washington that challenged the state over the culverts in 2001, part of decades-long litigation over tribal fishing rights.

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“Fixing fish-blocking culverts under state roads will open up hundreds of miles of habitat and result in more salmon,” she said.

Messages left with a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office were not immediately returned Friday.

Washington had sought a rehearing, arguing in part that the court’s decision forces the state to spend billions to replace culverts that in some cases wouldn’t have an impact on salmon because there were other barriers upstream or downstream that completely block salmon. It also said the decision would have broad implications for other land and water-use management in the Northwest.

“Ordering a State to spend money on something that will make no difference is an abuse of discretion,” the…

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