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Hatchery contracts hit 'overtime'

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has extended by three months its agreement for the state to continue running Cole Rivers Hatchery on the Rogue River and five other Oregon hatcheries as the sides hash out new operating contracts to raise and release millions of salmon, steelhead and trout.

Facing a Friday expiration of its agreement with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Corps opted this week to keep ODFW staff on hand at Cole Rivers to maintain production of 2.8 million salmon, steelhead and trout bound for the Rogue Basin this year.

ODFW last week proposed a roughly $2 million annual agreement to run Cole Rivers with staffing levels and fish releases at status-quo, but the federal agency has not responded.

"We haven't heard boo from the Corps" on the Cole Rivers proposal, said Scott Patterson, ODFW's Fish Propagation Program leader.

The two sides instead have been hashing out contracts for four Willamette Valley hatcheries the Corps relies on for its mitigation programs there, negotiations that Patterson said involve the Corps "trying to lowball us" on costs.

"I'm guessing they want to get the Willamette Valley hatcheries done, then they'll come to Cole Rivers and Bonneville," Patterson said.

Corps spokesman Tom Conning in Portland said his agency is not going to prioritize any hatchery over another in negotiations, and the Corps hopes to have all the hatchery contracts settled by the end of July.

Conning likened the extension to going into "overtime" and that the Corps expects the negotiations to reach favorable conclusions.

"We just needed more time to work out the negotiations," Conning said.

The Corps and ODFW have used variations of contracts and, most recently, five-year operating agreements at Cole Rivers since it opened in 1973 to raise and release fish to make up for wild fish habitat lost from the building of Lost Creek and Applegate dams.

The Corps in February announced that an internal review of its contracting rules concluded it would be more appropriate to run its mitigation hatcheries on a contract basis instead of cooperative agreements with ODFW.

Initially, that meant operation of Cole Rivers would go out for competitive bid for hatchery operations, its fin-clipping of spring chinook and steelhead before release, and its fish-health program.

But the agency did an abrupt about-face in March when it said the operation's complexities and its own contract rules meant ODFW should handle those operations under a so-called "sole-source" agreement.

The Cole Rivers proposal is for a one-year contract with two one-year renewals.

Some of the steelhead reared at Cole Rivers are on hand more than two years before they are released.

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

Spring chinook salmon are released Tuesday at Cole Rivers Hatchery. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]