2023 Year in Review Summary provided by Bob Bailey, Elakha Alliance Board President
On a lovely fall day in 2017, as the idea of returning sea otters to Oregon was still in early discussion, I was with my grandkids at the Oregon Zoo when we stopped to admire the magnificent birds in the California condor enclosure. I had known the Zoo was working with the Yurok Tribe and others to restore those enormous birds to the wild. In fact, when I was a city commissioner in Oregon City, I had been on a field trip deep into rural Clackamas County to visit the Zoo’s facility where condor chicks were being hatched and raised in preparation for the day they or their offspring would fly free.
As I read the exhibit’s interpretive panels about how many partners were involved and how many years had already been spent, with the prospect of more years that would be required, I was not so much daunted as struck by the sheer magnitude of the project and the need to sustain a common vision and coordinate work by various entities over the time necessary to ensure all parts fit together to get the job done. The Zoo and others had already invested serious money and effort for nearly two decades; more would be required to succeed. I was both alarmed and reassured. Would it really take this long to return sea otters to Oregon? Would it require the same scale of partnerships as with condors? It was clear to me that if we moved forward, we could certainly learn from condor experience to build the right programs and create the right partnerships. And we would need to be patient.
Now, in 2024, several condors – “prey-go-neesh” in the Yurok language – fly in the skies over northern California. The decades of planning and work paid off with the first releases nearly two years ago. The effort is, of course, ongoing to ensure the long term survival of these birds and successfully build a wild population. I am inspired by the success of this effort.
Elakha is now entering its seventh year. Conversations with our partners give me hope that we are moving toward formal processes that will result in translocations of sea otters to Oregon. Those processes, controlled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), will be affected by many factors, some within our ability to influence and others beyond. But with the interest, effort, and support of many partners, we have come a long way since Elakha Alliance first met in December 2017. We have learned a lot and checked a lot of boxes in our strategic plan. I would be the first to say that while there is much more work remaining before sea otters swim free on the Oregon coast, I am confident that we are getting there.
A Year in Review
I assume that you receive and at least scan our monthly newsletter, The Raft, and therefore have kept up with what we have done over the past year. So I am not going to reiterate all of that except to say that I believe we have assembled an excellent team with Jane Bacchieri as Executive Director, Chanel Hason as Director of Outreach and Community Engagement, Kyle Motley who joined us mid-2023 as Coastal Community Coordinator, and Tabatha Rood who is coming up to speed as Director of Science/Policy. Director. Jonathan Poisner continues on contract as our (extremely valuable) Strategic Advisor.
I also assume that you have kept track of, if not participated in, various events and activities we have held such as our annual Oregon Otter Beer Challenge held at OMSI in Portland or our on-line Sea Otter Science Symposium. There are a ton of other activities that helped build public awareness of and support for our mission.
Behind the Curtain
I want to give you a glimpse of some developments that were not so public but that are super-important for setting the stage for 2024 and beyond.
You may recall that in early 2020 Elakha worked with Senator Merkley’s staff to insert language into the USFWS budget that required it to report to Congress by the end of 2021 on the feasibility of returning sea otters to their former range along the Pacific Coast. USFWS staff did an outstanding job and completed that report by the end of 2021. It concluded that there would be multiple significant benefits from doing so and referenced a lot of what had been included within the Elakha Alliance’s own Feasibility Study completed earlier in the year.
USFWS upper management, however, was very cautious about potential controversy and so embargoed the report until mid-summer 2022. Public reception, however, was very positive which allowed the agency to feel more comfortable talking in public about sea otters. This new comfort set the stage for a series of public open house/listening sessions held by USFWS in summer 2023 in more than a dozen coastal communities on the Oregon and northern California coasts. USFWS staff did an outstanding job talking one-on-one with people and despite some grumpiness if not opposition expressed in a few communities, the overall response for the return of sea otters was very positive.
There are several implications from the increasing engagement of USFWS in strategizing to return sea otters to the 800 miles where they are absent in northern California and Oregon. One is that the Elakha mission, with its focus on Oregon, is nonetheless increasingly part of a regional approach to sea otter restoration which may be complicated by the fact that the geographic region is bisected by two administrative regions within the USFWS; northern California in the Southwest Region and Oregon in the Northwest Region. Further, the southern sea otter subspecies in California is listed as an Endangered Species and the current official recovery plan for it makes no mention of translocation as a method for range expansion. Conversely, the northern sea otter subspecies in southeast Alaska and the Olympic coast of Washington, potential areas for source animals for Oregon, are not listed as either Threatened or Endangered. Thus, any effort to translocate those animals to the Oregon coast could be somewhat down the list of priorities for the agency. Elakha and its partners will need to address these issues and figure out how to resolve them. We will see how this plays out in 2024.
Elakha staff spent considerable time and energy in the early part of the year working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Oregon Zoo to submit a request to the Oregon and California Congressional delegations to add funds to the USFWS budget to enable it to build staff capacity and do other work necessary to begin its formal evaluation process related to sea otter translocations. MBA has significant experience engaging Congress on budget and legislative matters so it was a good chance to work with them. However, the request was a casualty of a budget agreement worked out by the White House and Republican leaders in the House in summer, 2023.
But the good news is that sea otters made it onto the radar screen of at least nine Congressional members, three from Oregon and six from California who, in mid-November, sent a letter to the Director of the USFWS citing the findings in the Report to Congress and encouraging the agency to continue its progress toward returning sea otters to their former range in northern California and Oregon.
I would expect that we will again work with these partners in 2024 to submit a similar budget request and make sure that Congressional members are aware and supportive of the return of sea otters to the Oregon and northern California coasts. This is important work even if it does not result in an immediate payoff.
For the past year the Elakha Alliance, in the person of Jane Bacchieri, has been meeting at least quarterly with partners in northern California, led by Andy Johnson at Defenders of Wildlife and including staff from Sea Otter Savvy, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Marine Mammal Center, US Fish and Wildlife Service and others to discuss and plan a strategy for returning sea otters to northern California that is coordinated, in some fashion, with the effort in Oregon.
This coordination effort has been timely as the USFWS looks for regional approaches to sea otter reintroductions in this bi-state region. Jonathan Poisner, Strategic Advisor on contract to Elakha, has been commissioned by Defenders to facilitate this regional planning and strategy development. One complication is that, despite decades of interest to protect and expand the population of sea otters in California, there is no counterpart to the Elakha Alliance that could take the lead on public outreach and other work. We have been clear that while we support a regional approach, we are focused on returning animals to the Oregon coast. One interesting outgrowth of this regional effort is that Elakha signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Monterey Bay Aquarium related to developing, owning, and using a regional sea otter population model created by Dr. Tim Tinker (who had developed an Oregon-focused population model as part of our Feasibility Study). Now, Tim has upgraded that model and integrated it with a similar model he had previously developed for California. This is an example of our evolving working relationships with other partners in California.
American the Beautiful Challenge Grant:
In March 2023, staff for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians (CTSI) sought assistance from the Elakha Alliance to prepare and submit a proposal to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) for an America the Beautiful Challenge grant for funds to plan for returning sea otters to the Oregon coast. The Siletz Tribal Council authorized the submission of a pre-proposal for $1.56 million that would increase tribal capacity for this work and enable Elakha and other partners to carry out a number of key tasks leading to a translocation plan. Council authorization set off a flurry of intense work over the next month to write and submit the actual preproposal, entitled (thanks to Peter Hatch) Bringing Xvlh-t’vsh Home: Indigenous-led Planning for Sea Otters’ Return to the Oregon and Northern California Coast. In June, CTSI was invited to prepare a full proposal for submission by mid- July. Again, about three weeks of intense work ensued and what I consider to be a terrific proposal was submitted. However, in mid-November we were informed that the proposal was not funded; we were told that the total amount of all requests was about three times the amount available to be awarded. We recently received detailed comments from the grant reviewers which were generally encouraging and very helpful for understanding how we might improve on the proposal. We will be regrouping with the CTSI and partners soon to discuss collaboration and funding options for 2024.
Despite the fact that the proposal was not funded, there were several positive aspects to the effort to prepare and submit the proposal. One was that the proposal was conceived as a region-scale proposal, in line with both the guidelines for proposals and the work we had already been engaging in. So we worked with Defenders of Wildlife, USFWS staff, and others to prepare the overall proposal narrative and rationale, work programs with subtasks, and budget estimates. This gave all of us the opportunity to think through two years of work with specific outcomes and to envision how all the work might play out.
More importantly, it also gave us the opportunity to reach out to many other entities, some of whom we had not previously contacted, to explain our mission, articulate our proposal, and seek a letter of support. In the end, we received letters from: Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, Yurok Tribe, Kashia Band of Pomo Indians, Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, International Union for Conservation of Nature Otter Specialist Group, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Defenders of Wildlife, The Marine Mammal Center, Oregon Coast Aquarium, Oregon Zoo, Seattle Aquarium, and Oregon State University, Marine Mammal Institute. Other entities that were approached could not provide a letter on short notice but indicated interest. The connections made during this process set the stage for building relationships in the coming year and beyond.
Thanks to the work and the relationships recited above, I think we are poised for significant progress in 2024 toward our goal of returning sea otters to the Oregon coast. We have changed the public narrative around sea otters, recruited an excellent team, cultivated necessary partnerships and support with the prospects of more, and built the scientific basis necessary.
I am eager to see what 2024 brings!
— Bob Bailey, Elakha Alliance Board President