$1.5 Million More For Columbia Sea Lion Control Nixed In Final Washington Budget

Funding for Washington sea lion culling on the Lower Columbia will continue for at least another year, but a chance to triple that spending in the coming fiscal year to save ESA-listed salmon and steelhead was lethally removed from the recently passed state budget.


Senators had approved an amendment from Sen. Jeff Wilson (R-Longview) that would have appropriated $1.5 million for expanded capacity to remove the marine mammals in Southwest Washington tributaries and above I-205 on the big river, but his proviso was cut out during final supplemental budget negotiations with House conference committee members earlier this month.

Wilson claimed it was the fault of Democrats in the lower chamber who “couldn’t bear the thought of euthanizing sea lions,” though that couldn’t immediately be confirmed.

“With all due respect, I think my colleagues need to be educated about this threat to our struggling salmon and steelhead runs,” he added in a press release. “Taking the side of the sea lions is a little like rooting for the New York Yankees.”

Wilson’s amendment would have been spent the $1.5 million between July 1, 2024 and June 30, 2025. It was uncontroversial enough that senators passed it (as well as $1.5 million he redirected in the same piece of legislation toward the homeless crisis in Longview) on a voice vote instead of a roll call.

California and Steller sea lions follow smelt, steelhead and spring Chinook up the Columbia this time of year and have been known to take pretty big bites out of the runs. They may also be contributing to sharply declining sturgeon numbers in the lower river that have led state managers to decide to not hold any retention fisheries for the long-lived fish on the Columbia below Bonneville for a second straight year.

“The lesson is that when sea lions congregate, fisheries agencies must be able to act – or else our fish runs become an all-you-can-eat buffet,” Wilson stated.

They have been acting since Congress amended the overly restrictive Marine Mammal Protection Act in 2018 to expand California sea lion control at Bonneville Dam and Willamette Falls to save ESA-listed runs. With a 2020 permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, states and tribes were granted authority to remove a maximum of 540 Californias and 176 Stellers from more of the Lower Columbia and its salmon- and steelhead-bearing tributaries.

That said, removals are still only occurring at the two pinchpoints – a total of 47 sea lions at Bonneville in 2023, 26 at the dam and falls in 2022, and 67 at both in 2021 – and the capacity to do more is limited by the number of haul-out traps on hand, and the size of the devices needed for the larger Stellers and the money to build them where they are known to gather. The animals are also smart and learn to avoid traps.

No doubt this blog will have a few commenters stating the problem could be solved a lot faster and cheaper with bullets, but the use of firearms was “expressly prohibited” under the federal permit granted to WDFW, ODFW, IDFG and the Nez Perce, Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and other tribal entities. It is good through mid-August 2025.

As it stands, WDFW does have $753,000 to spend on sea lion control on the Lower Columbia between this July and the following June – the same period Wilson’s amendment would have bolstered – thanks to a budget proviso inserted into 2023’s two-year state budget.

WDFW had hoped that that funding would be designated “ongoing” – that is, automatically written into the 2025-27 budget – but lawmakers made it a “one-time” infusion, meaning the agency will have to request it again when the legislature convenes again next winter.

California sea lions are considered “fully rebounded” and at carrying-capacity, and the eastern Pacific stock of Steller sea lions has been federally delisted.