By Bill Hewitt
June 09, 2008 12:00 PM

A long the Columbia River, between Oregon and Washington, the sea lion stirs strong emotions. For Andrea Kozil, who regularly hikes along the river, the creatures, sleek and playful, are more like old friends than ordinary animals. “You can recognize them,” says Kozil. “Thousands of people come to see them; the kids name them.” But for the fishermen and tribal members of the region, the sea lions, protected by federal law, are anything but cuddly. Because they prey on endangered wild salmon that also inhabit the Columbia, many locals see them as a threat to their way of life. “The sea lions are pretty much out of control,” complains Dennis Richey, executive director of Oregon Anglers. “Something has to be done.”

Feelings, already running high, have lately hit a new and more rancorous phase. Earlier this year, after winning approval from the federal government, wildlife officials in the area began a five-year program to remove as many as 85 of the California sea lions each year—by killing them if need be—from the waters around the Bonneville Dam, 40 miles east of Portland, where the creatures gorge on fish swimming upstream to spawn. Animal rights activists, including the Humane Society of the United States, have filed suit to stop the program, which was just getting under way when, on May 4, six sea lions were found dead in traps near the dam. Authorities said on May 14 that the animals had apparently died of heatstroke, but how the gates slammed closed remained a mystery. “Whether it was vigilantes or negligence, humans killed them,” says Sharon Young of the Humane Society.

Those in favor of ousting the sea lions insist that their measures are a modest response to a critical problem: The numbers of wild salmon are in sharp decline. Meanwhile, the California sea lion, hunted nearly to extinction in the last century, has made a remarkable recovery since being protected in 1972, now numbering 240,000. Sea lions have been drawn to the Bonneville Dam because the salmon must congregate around the fish ladders—a series of pools arranged like ascending steps—in order to proceed upriver, making them an easy lunch. The plan to remove the sea lions included the stipulation that efforts be made to find zoos or aquariums to take as many of the animals as possible. Only those left over could be euthanized—or shot if they eluded capture. “No one’s suggesting a scorched-earth policy,” says Charles Hudson, of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “There was no bloodlust.”

But animal rights activists maintain that the government’s own statistics, based on limited observation, suggest that the sea lions consume a relatively small percentage of the salmon. (State officials contend that the real percentage is far higher—and growing.) “The salmon are not going extinct because of the sea lions, but because of pollution, dams and overfishing,” says Kozil, who works for a great-ape rescue organization in Portland and is one of the plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit to block the removal. “The sea lions have been demonized.”

Hudson argues that it is the activists who have let their emotions get away from them, favoring the cute sea lions over the less attractive fish. “There seems to be a picking and choosing of one species over another,” he says. “It’s maddening.” After the six sea lion deaths, officials agreed to suspend the removal program for this season. But that will not lay to rest the strong emotions on either side. Says Young of the Humane Society: “This issue is not going to go away.”