Land Owner Admits Guilt in First Ever Endangered Species Act (ESA) Case in Oregon Based on Alteration of Coho Salmon Habitat.

PORTLAND, Ore. – U. S. Attorney Dwight C. Holton recently announced the conviction of Gary R. West Jr. for unlawfully discharging fill material into a stream, in violation of the Clean Water Act, and illegally taking threatened coho salmon, in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). West pled guilty and was sentenced before U.S. District Judge Ancer L. Haggerty on March 29, 2010.

West, 42, of Lake Creek, admitted that he intentionally re-routed the flow of South Fork Little Butte Creek, a critical salmon habitat, by using heavy equipment in the creek during the fall of 2007. Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast (SONCC) coho salmon spawn in the creek. The conduct took place on a portion of the South Fork Little Butte Creek located near Eagle Point, Oregon.

Coho salmon are found in the Pacific Ocean, along the west coast of the continental United States and Alaska. As part of their natural life cycle, they are born in streams, creeks, and rivers and then migrate to the Pacific Ocean where they live up to two years before returning to spawn in the same river, creek and stream in which they were born. It is critical to survival of SONCC coho salmon spawn in the South Fork Little Butte Creek to have the ability to migrate and spawn upstream. These coho salmon are threatened with extinction and listed under the ESA as a threatened species.

According to the two-count Information, West used a bulldozer to push fill from a gravel bar to create a berm to divert the stream flow into a newly excavated channel during the time period of October and November 2007. The creation of the berm caused the unauthorized taking of coho salmon redds. Individuals are required to obtain state and federal permits before conducting "in-stream" work, in part to minimize impacts to threatened and endangered species.

"Coho salmon are a gift we have enjoyed for generations - beginning with Native Americans and continuing through today. Illegal habitat destruction threatens to wipe out this gift forever – and we won’t tolerate it," said U.S. Attorney Dwight C. Holton said.

"Today’s conviction sends the message that failure to obtain a permit is taken seriously by enforcement agencies and can result in criminal prosecution," said Mark Measer, Special Agent in Charge, EPA Office of Criminal Enforcement in Seattle, Washington.

"Safeguarding ESA-listed fish and wildlife populations is one of this Agency's top priorities," said Vicki Nomura, Special Agent in Charge, NOAA Office of Law Enforcement. "This successful prosecution comes at a time when the importance of protecting critical habitat for salmon as well as steelhead is on the minds of many commercial and recreational fishermen throughout the northwest."

This is the first federal criminal case charging an individual with the take of SONCC coho salmon through habitat alteration.

U.S. District Judge Ancer L. Haggerty sentenced West to three years of probation. As part of the plea agreement negotiated with the government, West agreed to restore the altered reach of South Fork Little Butte Creek by planting native vegetation and removing the gravel berm, under federal supervision.

This case was investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Office of Criminal Enforcement and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of Law Enforcement. Assistant U.S. Attorney Neil Evans prosecuted the case.