Fought against many schemes to kill one species to “help” another
PORTLAND, Oregon––Few changings of the guard anticipated among animal advocacy leadership in 2023 may be felt more than the impending retirement of Bob Sallinger, 55, longtime public face of the 124-year-old Portland Audubon Society and a distinctly different voice from the stodgy, conventional image of birders and bird advocates.
Sallinger on December 1, 2022 announced his exit, effective February 1, 2023, after three decades of often clashing with mainstream conservationists and conservation agencies, befriending the feral cat advocates who are the avowed enemies of most bird advocacy organizations, and demonstrating “compassionate conservation” long before the term was invented.
Conservation vs. humane priorities
The most evident distinction between conservationists and humane advocates is that conservationists tend to regard species preservation as their highest priority; humane advocates put prevention of cruelty first.
Conservationists argue that “extinction is forever”; humane advocates respond that so is death, and for victims of cruelty, the fear and pain they suffer before death may be their eternity.
Sallinger throughout his career has been both an ardent conservationist, first and foremost, and insistent that humane values should be considered in conservation decisions, even if not always politically expedient.
Indeed, Sallinger became involved with Portland Audubon through his concern for a single suffering animal.
“In 1992, I arrived at Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center with an injured prairie falcon,” Sallinger wrote in his retirement announcement. “I could not have imagined that it would become my home for the next 30 years.”
Recalled Sallinger in April 2022, when he reached the thirtieth anniversary of his arrival, “Roughly speaking, I spent 10 years in the Wildlife Care Center, 10 years carrying on the legacy of Mike Houck running the Urban Conservation Program, and the last ten,” as Portland Audubon conservation director, “working to advance conservation across the entire state.
“Too flakey to hold a permanent job”
“When I was first hired,” Sallinger acknowledged, “Audubon gave me a temporary position because they thought I was too flakey to hold a permanent job––something about the fact that I was living in a van in the parking lot with my dog. They also suggested that I only charge them for the work I did not enjoy because, ‘If you enjoy it, then it really isn’t work,’ which may have had something to do with why I was living in a van,” with Elisabeth Neely, his wife of three years then, 33 years now.
Neely for 10 years was naturalist at Oxbow Park, about 40 minutes away, and was later a Waldorf “Shining Star” program teacher.
Bald eagles & peregrine falcons
“This is not the end of my conservation journey—it is just the next phase,” Sallinger continued. “The time is right to move on.
“I am thankful for a job that allowed me to care for injured bald eagles, rappel off of bridges into peregrine nests, fight some of Oregon’s fiercest conservation battles, and be part of some of Oregon’s most innovative conservation collaboratives.
“I am thankful for a job that took me to some of Oregon’s most remote and wild places but which also, in large part because of the incredible vision of my friend and mentor Mike Houck, encouraged me to focus on the grayest parts of our urban landscape where birds can be hard to find, because everybody has a right to a healthy environment.
“The last year has been epic”
“The last year has been epic,” Sallinger recited. “Together we have passed bipartisan legislation to protect the Elliott State Forest and increase riparian protections on 10 million acres of private forest land in Oregon.
“We have updated Portland’s decades old environmental zoning code, secured $200,000 in the Portland budget to develop code to reduce light pollution and protect night skies, advanced new protections for our urban floodplains, convinced Metro to do a full cleanup of contamination at Willamette Cove, and passed a levy that will result in $90 million for local green spaces restoration and nature grants over the next five years.
“We have reduced the number of days that animals can be left in traps in Oregon, and doubled the size of our Ten Mile Sanctuary on the central Oregon coast.
“I am not done yet”
“After a 40-year battle, we are also working hand in hand with the Port of Portland to convert West Hayden Island into a permanently protected natural area.
“And I am not done yet,” Sallinger promised. “I still feel the same passion and enthusiasm that I felt at 25 when I first walked through those Wildlife Care Center doors.”
Sallinger came to Portland Audubon as an avid hiker whose “passion for conservation was developed early exploring the woods of Massachusetts and later on solo hikes from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail, and from Canada to Southern Colorado on the Continental Divide,” his Portland Audubon biography states.
Bears in the basement
Sallinger earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Reed College in Portland, plus a law degree from the Lewis & Clark Law School, also in Portland, where he was later an adjunct professor of conservation law.
Sallinger has also served as board president of Humane Voters Oregon, on the Portland Utility Board, and on many other conservation-related boards, including that of East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District.
“He lives in Northeast Portland with his wife, three children and an assortment of dogs, goats, chickens, and other critters,” the official Portland Audubon bio says.
“Elisabeth and the kids put up with bears in the basement and otters in the backyard and a hell of a lot of overtime,” Sallinger admits.
Originated as the John Burroughs Club
Portland Audubon originated in 1898 as the John Burroughs Club. The Oregon Audubon Society formed in 1901, initially headquartered in Astoria, at the mouth of the Columbia River, but moved upstream to Portland and merged with the John Burroughs Club a year later.
The Oregon Audubon Society did not affiliate with the National Audubon Society, founded in New York City in 1905, until 1966, when it became formally the Audubon Society of Portland, called Portland Audubon for short.
Along the way, Portland Audubon acquired a 150-acre woodland sanctuary adjacent to 5,200 acre Forest Park, one of the largest urban wildlife habitats in the U.S., featuring more than 80 miles of trails.
Encouraged by the success of Forest Park as a nonprofit institution not funded by the sale of hunting and fishing permits, and not funded either by the federal Pittman-Robertson tax on hunting and fishing equipment, Sallinger “supported a move in Congress to raise wildlife money through a tax on outdoor equipment and items such as bird seed and binoculars, but it failed,” recalled Michael Milstein of the Portland Oregonian in January 2006.
The failure was largely because of the reluctance of hunting and fishing organizations, representing about 6% of the U.S. population, to yield influence to non-consumptive wildlife users, as wildlife managers describe non-hunters and non-fishers.
“We all have an impact one way or another, and we all should be paying a share,” said Sallinger, aware that the diminishing hunting and fishing population will inevitably translate into less revenue for wildlife habitat maintenance unless the funding basis is expanded.
“Oregon really needs to develop some model for the new century that will fund all the programs,” Sallinger added.
Peregrine falcons vs. roller pigeon fanciers
Meanwhile Sallinger turned his attention to fighting poachers of hawks, owls, eagles, and falcons, all still struggling to recover from population crashes caused by DDT accumulation in their prey base during the mid-20th century.
The Portland region had achieved a peregrine falcon comeback by encouraging falcons to nest under the twelve bridges that span the Willamette River, but roller pigeon fanciers, resenting predation on their captive-bred flocks, responded by shooting and poisoning falcons and other birds of prey.
Two alleged ringleaders, Peter Kaufman and Ivan Hanchett, were convicted of killing an unknown number of protected bird species, fined $2,000 each, and ordered to pay $2,000 more apiece to the Endangered Species Justice Fund at the Oregon Zoo.
Sallinger, then-Portland mayor Tom Potter, and then-Portland Metro Council president David Bragdon had all sought penalties of the maximum $10,000.
“We spend the last 15 years trying to restore these falcons, and they’re out there killing the exact same birds!” Sallinger fumed.
Sallinger in December 2007 was aligned with the conservation establishment, against many birders, other animal advocates, and much of the public in endorsing the “Oregon Wildlife Integrity Rules.”
This included a scheme to eradicate feral mute swans as an alleged non-native species, despite some fossil and documentary evidence that they have been occasional visitors to North America, including Oregon, for thousands of years.
“The history on invasive species has been underestimating the impact,” Sallinger said.
“That is the lesson we have learned in the decades and centuries of introducing species — we underestimate the problem,” Sallinger told Beth Casper of the Salem Statesman Journal.
Tweety & Sylvester
Sallinger also seemed to be aligned with the conservation establishment when, also in December 2007, he acknowledged to Bruce Barcott of the New York Times that, “The biggest complaint we get is cats.
“The statistics are actually misleading. We only record an injury as cat-caused if the person saw the cat injure the bird,” Sallinger continued. “I’m kind of a stickler on that. A huge number of the injuries we record as of unknown origin are consistent with cat injuries, and the birds recorded as orphaned are often that way because their mothers were caught by cats. We often say that up to 40% percent of the injuries we see are cat related.”
Yet often cats are able to catch a bird only because the bird has already been debilitated by disease, drunkenness from eating fermented berries, colliding with a window, or being hit by a car.
Instead of echoing a doctrinaire catch-and-kill policy toward outdoor cats, Sallinger endorsed neuter/return cat control.
“I don’t think rounding up feral cats and killing them is going to solve it better,” Sallinger told the Portland Tribune.
Vox Felina blogger Peter Wolf simultaneously both agreed and disagreed with Sallinger’s position.
“While I’m pleased to see Bob Sallinger supporting trap-neuter-release,” wrote Wolf, “he errs when he says, ‘There’s no question that outdoor cats are harming the local wild bird population. Rehab intakes provide, at best, a soda-straw view of the world. It’s a bit like making conclusions about a community’s human population based on one’s experience as an emergency room nurse.”
“I have to give him credit”
Added Wolf in a December 2012 follow-up, “While I disagree with some of Sallinger’s claims (e.g., that all mortality sources, including cats, add to declining bird populations), I have to give him (and Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon executive director Karen Krauss) credit for taking some rather extraordinary steps in merging horizons of understanding. I am impressed, for example, with Sallinger’s moderate stance on keeping pet cats indoors (e.g., if not this cat, then your next cat; if not all year, then during the springtime months; etc.). This is a far cry from the American Bird Conservancy’s Cats Indoors! program—so often used as a Trojan Horse used to indirectly undermine TNR—and Sallinger deserves to be acknowledged for his efforts.
“Both sides care deeply for animals”
Summarized Andrea Damewood for Willamette Week, “In much of the country, a war simmers in what The New York Times calls a ‘strange Sylvester-and-Tweety feud between birders and cat fanciers.’ But in Portland, the factions have formed a rare détente.
“Conservation director Bob Sallinger of the Audubon Society of Oregon says it comes down to the fact that both sides care deeply for animals.”
Explained Sallinger, “Everywhere else, there’s constant bickering, fighting, vilifying each other. At the end of the day, trap-neuter-return is an experiment. But what I tell my friends in the bird community is, it may not work, but we already have 100 years of failure behind us.”
Sallinger eventually became a frequent speaker at conferences organized by neuter/return proponents. He and Karen Krauss spoke together on Episode 262 of Stacy LeBaron’s Community Cats Podcast, first aired on August 25, 2018.
Sallinger in February 2008 quickly debunked a multitude of conspiracy theories about pesticide use, high-voltage power lines, and so forth after 55 robins fell dead in the Mount Tabor neighborhood of Portland.
“The birds’ bellies were chock full of holly berries, skins and seeds. Lethal doses of ethanol may have formed in the berries as natural sugars fermented over the fall and winter,” explained Michael Milstein of the Oregonian, after Sallinger examined the remains, finding liver damage characteristic of ethanol ingestion.
“Holly berries are not a prime robin food, Sallinger said, but the birds could have turned to them as a last resort when icy weather froze the ground and made it tough to dig for worms or other tastier meals,” Milstein continued.
“Robins travel in flocks this time of year, so they could have gobbled the berries together. They may have died from ethanol poisoning directly or dropped into such a stupor that they died of exposure.”
Said Sallinger, “Certainly a drunk bird in the rain is pretty vulnerable.”
Friend of coyotes
Sallinger also spoke up for coyotes when panic followed occasional coyote predation on pets left outdoors and unsupervised.
For example, Rick Bella of the Oregonian reported on September 18, 2008, “Sallinger said it is misguided to believe coyotes can be eliminated without changing the factors that attract the animals––food, such as pets.
“Even if you kill some coyotes, they will fill back in very quickly,” Sallinger said. “And ultimately, it may make the situation worse.”
Summarized Bella, “He said coyotes have ‘compensatory breeding rates’ that ratchet up if coyotes are killed, resulting in larger litters.”
Said Sallinger, “The best way [to prevent coyote predation of pets] is to teach pet owners to be more responsible.”
Spotted owls vs. barred owls
Sallinger unsuccessfully sought middle ground, and increased emphasis on spotted owl habitat protection, when in December 2009 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service introduced a scheme to kill barred owls to keep them from competing with the scarcer spotted owls.
The alternative would have been to further restrict logging.
“The highest priority needs to be placed on avoiding extinction,” Sallinger told Associated Press environmental writer Jeff Barnard. “But unless habitat protections continue for old growth forests where the spotted owl lives, killing barred owls is not going to accomplish anything.”
“I don’t think this is scapegoating”
Added Sallinger to ANIMALS 24-7, “I think folks on both sides of this issues are struggling with the fact that even if we were able to snap our fingers and restore old growth habitat instantaneously, the science increasingly indicates lethal control of barred owls may also be a necessary component for having any hope of recovering spotted owls.
“Thus we are left with a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t choice of either killing large numbers of barred owls for an indefinite time period in the limited hope that spotted owl populations with eventually recover to the point where they can establish some sort of equilibrium or that we simply allow the spotted owl to go extinct.
“I don’t think this is a matter of scapegoating the barred owl,” Sallinger continued. “I don’t know anybody in the conservation or animal welfare communities who views the idea of killing barred owls as anything other than horrific.
“Implications of extinction”
“However with spotted owls basically extirpated from British Columbia and on their way out in Washington, the implications of extinction are now staring us in the face.
“I think we would be remiss to simply ignore the fact the influx of barred owls may hasten that extinction long before our habitat recovery efforts have any chance of being successful.
“That does not mean that we ultimately settle on lethal control; it just means that we need to take a hard look at the implications.”
Shooting barred owls continues, without much hint that it is helping spotted owls, while the Donald Trump administration opened vastly more spotted owl habitat to logging.
Klamath National Wildlife Refuge
Drought in 2012 brought Sallinger into a running battle with a succession of federal Interior Agency administrations over allocating adequate water to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, created by then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 and considered the most important stopover on the Pacific Flyway for migratory waterfowl.
“Birds are hardwired to follow migratory routes they have followed since time immemorial,” Sallinger told Barnard of Associated Press. “They are going to return to these places. The question is, will they find something when they get there?”
Simultaneously, Sallinger sought to restrict trapping access to Oregon public land, and to prohibit snaring, with a daily trap-checking requirement.
“It’s a matter of humaneness. It’s a matter of ecological responsibility,” Sallinger told Jonathan J. Cooper of Associated Press. “If you catch a non-target animal you have a better chance of getting it out of the trap in time to do something for it.”
Working to protect wetland habitat led Sallinger to call for stricter prohibition of floodplain development.
“The tragic flooding that occurred around the country in 2017 should have been a wake-up call to all Americans that our current floodplain development policies are dangerous and unsustainable,” Sallinger, said.
“However, instead of allowing Oregon to move forward with much-needed floodplain reforms, the industries that benefit most from irresponsible taxpayer-subsidized floodplain development are seeking to undermine reform efforts.”
Sallinger by 2019 was again fighting against old growth logging, this time on behalf of the marbled murrelet, citing “copious evidence from multiple peer-reviewed studies that murrelets are at serious risk in Oregon.
“The best available science predicts the extinction probability at 80% by 2060 along Oregon’s central and north coasts and 80% by 2100 along Oregon’s south coast. California and Washington have already classified murrelets as endangered,” Sallinger pointed out, blasting an Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission decision to not also list marbled murrelets as endangered.
“We did eventually win the uplisting of the marbled murrelets. It took a while, but eventually the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife Commission did uplist,” Sallinger told ANIMALS 24-7.
Salmon & steelhead
Apart from the Tweety-&-Sylvester conflict, which will probably continue so long as there are humans, cats, and birds, Sallinger’s longest-running clash with the conservation establishment has probably been over alleged salmon and steelhead protection measures focused on killing wild native predators, instead of on removing dams that block access to spawning streams.
Sallinger fought a scheme to kill cormorants at East Sand Island, near the mouth of the Columbia River, in an unsuccessful 2015 lawsuit, based on a suppressed and ignored study by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Steve Haeseker.
In May 2016 the Sand Island cormorant colony abandoned their nests.
“One of the worst things I’ve seen”
“The complete collapse of the colony was preceded by weeks of intense killing and harassment of cormorants on and around East Sand Island,” Sallinger charged in a media release, “with federal agents killing nearly 2,400 birds with shotguns and destroying more than 1,000 cormorant nests.”
Added Sallinger to Karina Brown of Willamette Week, “This goes down as one of the really significant failures in wildlife management in recent decades. It’s without question one of the worst things I’ve seen in my years of wildlife advocacy.
“This was never about protecting salmon,” emphasized Sallinger. “This was always about scapegoating birds to avoid the real challenges. The result has been a stunning failure, whether you care about birds or fish.”
“It’s a total joke”
U.S. District Judge Michael H. Simon on August 31, 2016 ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act “by failing properly to consider reasonable alternatives” to shooting the birds and oiling their eggs to prevent young from hatching.
Judge Simon, however, allowed the cormorant killing and egg-oiling to continue because, he wrote, “The plan provides some benefit to salmonids that are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act, whereas double crested cormorants,” though protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, “are not listed as either endangered or threatened.”
“It’s a total joke,” Sallinger fumed to ANIMALS 24-7. “Why would these agencies ever change course, if they are just allowed to thumb their noses at the courts and the law?
Shooting cormorants failed; gulls in the sights
“The relentless killing and persecution of these cormorants over the past three years has put the world’s largest colony of cormorants at risk of permanent collapse and the entire western population of double-crested cormorants at risk,” Sallinger said.
After shooting thousands of cormorants, accomplishing nothing substantive for salmon and steelhead, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and conservation agencies floated a scheme to shoot gulls.
“It’s not the wildlife that’s the problem,” Sallinger responded, “it’s the dams. Killing gulls is pure scapegoating,” Sallinger told Courtney Flatt of Oregon Public Broadcasting.
But saved ravens
Offsetting Sallinger’s frustration over that, in December 2019 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife “cancelled a proposal to kill hundreds of ravens in Baker County in northeastern Oregon,” he announced.
“Portland Audubon led a coalition of groups opposed to this proposal,” Sallinger explained.
“The agencies argued that killing ravens was necessary to protect declining greater sage grouse populations in Baker County. While we are deeply concerned about sage grouse declines in Baker County, the proposal was inhumane and not supported by science.
“The environmental assessment put forward by the agencies included no data demonstrating that ravens were actually predating in sage grouse nests, would have left hundreds of eggs baited with poison scattered across the landscape, and would have left nestling ravens whose parents were poisoned to starve in their nests.
“The proposal also ignored significant causes of sage grouse decline in Baker County such as an off-road vehicle area that was developed in core sage grouse habitat.
“Sage grouse declines do need to be addressed,” Sallinger said, “but this was another classic case of scapegoating one species for the decline of another, while ignoring far more obvious threats.”
Helped to ban “cyanide bombs”
Sallinger had already in 2019 helped to win passage of an Oregon state law banning use of sodium cyanide anti-predator devices, commonly called M-44s or “cyanide bombs,” used by USDA Wildlife Services to kill coyotes.
“Far too many target and non-target animals have died inhumane deaths because of these devices,” Sallinger said. “Hopefully Oregon helps lead the way to a nationwide ban on these devices.”
The Oregon congressional delegation in 2022 introduced a proposed national ban on M-44s, but it did not advance in the 117th Congress.
Sallinger’s apparent post-retirement career appears to have begun before his actual retirement, when on December 13, 2022 the Oregon State Land Board voted unanimously to designate the 80,000-acre Elliott State Research Forest.
This was done by removing the Elliott forest from lands managed as part of the Common School Fund created in 1859, which subsidizes public education through the sale of timber.
Sallinger was on the advisory committee that negotiated the land board deal, and has been appointed to the newly created Elliott State Research Forest board of directors.