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Wild steelhead retention could be closed

Two Jackson County residents are no longer on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission just as the body is to take up whether to require catch-and-release of all wild steelhead on South Coast rivers, including the Rogue River.

Former commission Chair Michael Finley of Medford has been replaced on the board by Becky Hyde, a rancher out of Brothers who was an early supporter of removing Klamath River Basin dams, and who partners with the Klamath Tribes on restoring ranchlands, according to her executive appointments interest form.

Hyde’s inaugural commission meeting will be Friday, when the commission hears a petition for an emergency closure on wild winter steelhead retention. The commission is set in January to hear a bid by fishing guides and others for a permanent ban.

Finley said he believes Southern Oregon streams, which are among a handful in the West that still allow anglers to keep some wild steelhead, should go to full catch-and-release of wild steelhead to protect their genetics.

“I was so looking forward to helping that go through,” Finley said.

Hyde’s appointment was followed Tuesday by the resignation from the board of Jim Bittle, a Central Point man and president of Willie Boats in Medford.

Bittle was appointed three years ago and resigned with less than a year left on his four-year appointment. He cited work scheduling conflicts and family matters for stepping down from the all-volunteer board.

Bittle had missed monthly commission meetings in August and October because of business commitments, he said.

“I’m just not able to give it 100%,” Bittle said. “If I can’t give it my all, I shouldn’t do it.”

Finley represented Oregon’s Second Congressional District on the commission, which sets fish and wildlife policy for the state.

Bittle held the Western Oregon at-large seat.

The commission’s seven members represent each of Oregon’s five congressional districts, as well as two at-large members, one each for Eastern and Western Oregon.

Gov. Kate Brown appointed former commission vice chair Mary Wahl of Langlois in Curry County as the new chair.

Wahl is a fourth-generation coastal rancher and former manager of the city of Portland’s Watershed Services program and a former manager of toxic cleanup programs for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The Rogue and eight other Southern Oregon streams allow some retention of wild steelhead for anglers at certain times of the year. Anglers can keep one wild steelhead a day and no more than three per year among all rivers open for wild steelhead retention, which includes the Illinois, Chetco, Elk and Sixes rivers.

Anglers have been banned from keeping wild summer steelhead in the Rogue for the past two decades.

The commission denied a similar request in September 2018, siding with ODFW biologists. At the time, the commission cited ODFW data that showed most winter steelhead anglers already release most of the wild fish they catch, and that the vast majority of anglers do not keep more than two wild steelhead a year.

A 2013 Oregon State University public-opinion survey showed that 69 percent of Oregonians and 68 percent of anglers favor allowing anglers to keep some wild fish when it does not risk population health.

Wild steelhead advocates argued that protecting wild steelhead is necessary to keep the species from declines seen elsewhere in the West. The petitioners also argued the change would create simpler and more consistent rules for the region, allow more angling opportunities because wild steelhead could be caught multiple times, and eventually it would create bigger fish that survive to spawn in multiple years.

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

A winter steelhead is released on the Rogue River near Shady Cove in April. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch