President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed this year’s federal budget, which includes a directive to study sea otter reintroduction in the Pacific Northwest.
Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley for Oregon added the paragraph to the federal budget bill that directs the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to study the feasibility and cost of reestablishing the marine mammals where they were once hunted to near-extinction along the Pacific coast in Oregon and Washington, the Northwest News Network reported.
“I’m very pleased. This is very timely,” said Bob Bailey, who leads the Elakha Alliance, a group that wants to bring wild sea otters back to Oregon. His organization, named after the Clatsop-Chinookan word for sea otter, prompted congressional action and already launched its own feasibility study based in Oregon.
He said the directive will help the government devise a strategic approach to conserving and protecting sea otters on the Pacific coast.
Sea otters were hunted to local extinction as part of the fur trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, but small populations survived off the coasts of central California and western Alaska, officials said.
The mammals were successfully reintroduced to Washington, Canada and southeast Alaska about 50 years ago, but the ones reintroduced in Oregon have not repopulated the region. The Elakha Alliance is now collaborating with coastal tribes and researchers to reexamine why previous efforts failed in Oregon.
Some have said sea otters could boost tourism and bring ecological benefits. Others, in the fishing industry, have argued that their return could mean less Dungeness crab, Oregon’s most valuable commercial fishery, and one of the mammals’ food options.
The signed directive to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service did not include any additional funding to conduct the federal feasibility study to produce a report by next December. The Elakha Alliance said its own feasibility study could provide “significant technical support” for the federal effort.
“A feasibility study will gather needed scientific information that will help make the best possible decision for sea otter recovery,” U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Jodie Delavan said. “It is purely exploratory and does not imply a decision on whether to reintroduce sea otters.”