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PORTLAND, Ore. - Government programs meant to protect threatened and endangered salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin do not meet the requirements of the Endangered Species Act, a federal judge has ruled.

In December 2000, NOAA Fisheries issued a strategy for protecting Columbia Basin salmon that focused on improvements to habitat, hatchery operations and harvest limitations without breaching four dams on the lower Snake River. Some environmentalists wanted the dams breached.

A coalition of environmental and fishermenís groups sued in May 2001, claiming the strategy concluded, without rational basis, that the plan would not put the fish stocks in jeopardy of extinction.

U.S. District Judge James Redden's 26-page opinion Wednesday agreed with the plaintiffs. He ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to develop a plan that complies with the law.

"We have a real opportunity here and we want to be sure we get a plan adequate to protect the fish," said Todd True, an attorney for Earthjustice, one of the plaintiffs.

Samuel Rauch III, arguing for U.S. Justice Department, said the government is not required to ensure that the stocks wonít go extinct, only to "not diminish the likelihood of recovery" from a threatened species listing.

The question he said, "is will the measures (for survival) be in place when the species needs them?" He also noted that salmon runs in recent years have been in relatively good shape.

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