updated 2/6/2008 10:35:16 AM ET 2008-02-06T15:35:16

The Oregon coastal coho, the subject of bitter court battles for years, is once again a threatened species.

The decision Monday by NOAA Fisheries Service, the federal agency in charge of restoring declining salmon populations, came in response to a federal court ruling that an earlier decision not to protect the fish violated the Endangered Species Act and could not be supported by science.

Bob Lohn, northwest regional director of NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement that the tight schedule under the court ruling made it difficult to reach any other conclusion, and he still believed that Oregon's plan for restoring coho largely through voluntary measures was working.

Oregon coastal coho were originally listed as threatened in 1997 under a federal court ruling, then dropped in 2001 after property rights advocates convinced a federal judge that NOAA Fisheries had improperly distinguished between wild and hatchery fish.

Putting Oregon coastal coho back brings to 27 the number of Pacific salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act and adds another layer of regulation to logging and other land use decisions on federal, state and private lands in the central Oregon Coast Range, particularly a U.S. Bureau of Land Management plan to ramp up logging to boost federal revenues paid to timber-dependent counties.

The state of Oregon had convinced NOAA Fisheries it didn't need to list Oregon coastal coho because of the state's program of voluntary habitat protections and studies indicating the fish could rebound from very low numbers.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Fisheries Chief Ed Bowles said they were disappointed at the listing, but hoped it would not affect Oregon's coastal coho restoration plan by making private landowners less willing to take part in voluntary programs.

Bowles added that under the listing, ocean and freshwater anglers should still be able to keep hatchery coho marked by a clipped adipose fin.

Jeff Curtis of Trout Unlimited, which sued to protect the fish, said he hoped the long history of court battles over the fish was finally at an end. He added that Trout Unlimited had been quite successful in gaining cooperation from private landowners to improve habitat for listed fish.

Curtis noted that with the ocean changing due to global warming, it becomes more important than ever to protect salmon populations, which are dwindling up and down the West Coast.

Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents California salmon fishermen, said the listing will assure that federal lands, particularly BLM lands, will do their fair share in protecting coho habitat and not put an undue burden on private landowners.

Once a staple of Oregon's commercial salmon fleet, with historic populations estimated at 2 million fish, Oregon coastal coho went into steep decline in the 1990s due to a combination of overfishing, loss of habitat to logging and agriculture, misguided hatchery practices and poor ocean conditions. After hitting a low of 14,000 fish, they are now at about 50,000.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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