ODFW may keep running Cole Rivers after all

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers now believes the complexities of running Cole Rivers Hatchery on the Rogue River, as well as its own contracting rules, mean the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife should retain operation of the hatchery.

Corps officials in Portland opted Friday to seek internal approval to enter into a "sole-source" agreement with ODFW to continue raising and releasing the 2.8 million salmon, steelhead and trout as mitigation for lost wild salmon and steelhead habitat from the building of Lost Creek and Applegate dams.

Operation of the hatchery was set to go out for competitive bidding this month. The Corps had planned to seek bids on separate one-year contracts for operating the hatchery, its fin-clipping operation and its so-called "fish health" program as it moved away from joint operating agreements with state agencies like ODFW to operate its hatcheries.

But that set up the possibility that one contractor could be directing another contractor, which is against Corps policy, said spokeswoman Michelle Helms in the Corps' Portland District office. 

"Because of that, we need that to be one entity, and we believe ODFW is the only entity that can provide all of those services under one contract," Helms said.

The fin-clipping operation involves the hand clipping of adipose fins on spring chinook and steelhead by an ODFW crew to mark them as hatchery fish, which means they are available for anglers to keep under regular bag limits. The fish health program employs a fish pathologist to do tests for parasites before fish are released, as well as monthly exams for disease and parasites at the facility on the Rogue a mile downstream of Lost Creek dam.

Bruce McIntosh, ODFW's deputy fisheries chief, said he believes meetings with Corps officials as recently as last week led the officials to realize the investments and expertise needed to run Cole Rivers properly.

While the Corps owns the facilities, ODFW owns the equipment and provides the equivalent of 16.5 full-time employees.

"They really started to see the complexities of what they were trying to undertake," McIntosh said. "No one else has a marking trailer. Who's going to go out and buy a $2 million marking trailer?"

Rogue angling groups and ODFW biologists have expressed concerns that a private outfit would not have the expertise to raise the salmon, steelhead and trout promised by the Corps to sport and commercial fishing interests as ODFW has since Cole Rivers went online in 1973.

"For now, this is certainly very positive," McIntosh said. "I know I have a lot of staff relieved about this." 

The Corps decided this year that it should move away from joint operating agreements with ODFW to run the hatcheries and initially announced plans in February to seek competitive bids to run Cole Rivers as well as six other Oregon hatcheries, including Bonneville Hatchery on the Columbia River.

Since then, the Corps determined its co-ownership of facilities at five of those hatcheries meant it was best to enter into an agreement with ODFW to operate them. However, Cole Rivers was still on track for public bidding because it was owned solely by the Corps and built solely on Corps property.

As it did with Bonneville and other Oregon hatcheries, the Corps will publish a notice of its intention to sole-source the Cole Rivers work before it formally asked Corps officials in Washington, D.C., for permission to enter into the Cole Rivers contract, Helms said.

Helms said her agency hoped to have that permission by the end of April. The Corps' current five-year operating agreement with ODFW for Cole Rivers ends June 30.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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