Never Any Evidence of Harm to Salmon
The first lawsuit attempting to ban suction dredging was filed in 2005 by the Karuks, a small group recognized as a Indian tribe by the federal government. The Karuks demanded the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) prohibit the use of suction dredge equipment on only three rivers: the Scott, Salmon and Klamath located primarily in Siskiyou County, California.
The Karuks claimed suction dredges were harming the salmon in some unspecified way, and only by banning all dredges on these rivers could the State protect the salmon.
The State denied suction dredges caused any harm to salmon, but opted to reach a settlement agreement with the Karuks whereby they would still ban suction dredging on these three rivers. This agreement was reached in secret but a mining group with properties on the Klamath River, the New 49ers, intervened in the case and blocked the settlement agreement.
After the New 49ers intervened an Alameda county judge blocked the settlement agreement as illegal and ordered the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to conduct additional studies on the effects of suction dredging on salmon on the specific rivers the Karuks complained of.
In the sixty years CDFW had been regulating suction dredging, to prevent harm to salmon, they had never documented a single instance of a salmon being harmed by a dredge. In fact there was no evidence this had ever occurred, or may occur, and according to their own fisheries biologist, Mr. Neil Manji, suction dredging wasn't a threat to salmon.
Just two years prior, in 2003, the Department had sent a team of fisheries biologists to the Salmon River, to respond to Karuk concerns suction dredges were threatening salmon. This team, with a team from the US Forest Service, conducted an in-depth review of a year of suction dredging activity and concluded not only was there no threat, but the dredge holes created the only habitat on the river for young salmon to seek refuge. The team found the lethal high summer temperatures in the Klamath and Salmon rivers discouraged salmon from inhabiting these areas, and if not for dredging there would likely be no suitable habitat for the fish.
These high temperatures were responsible for the 2002 Klamath River fish kill which killed over 45,000 salmon when a lethal pathogen, which thrives in warm water, infected the salmon spawning run and wiped out nearly the entire annual run.
That is those salmon which were lucky enough to escape the gill nets of the Yurok tribe, which according to the Del Norte newpaper, the Triplicate, had a commercial quota of 76,000 salmon to harvest from the mouth of the Klamath River in 2013. Over 100,000 of these supposedly endangered salmon are caught and killed each year by commercial and recreational fishermen, yet not a single salmon is harmed by suction dredges.
Lacking any evidence suction dredging harmed salmon, and having a court order which said it was illegal for the Department to close suction dredging on the Klamath, the Karuks and their associated environmental allies sought relief from the California legsilature, which never saw an environmental bill it didn't like. In 2009, the environmental groups finally found a legislator who was willing to do their bidding, or at least Senator Wiggin's staff was willing to write a bill and have her say she sponsored it. The environmental groups convinced Senator Wiggins, who had never seen a suction dredge, or live salmon, that these small devices were a mortal threat to the continued existence of the fish. Once legislation is introduced in Sacramento one only need count the number of democrats and republicans to tally the final passage vote. Every republican voted against the bill, every democrat voted for it. This despite serious concerns over the mental health of Senator Wiggins.
Above. Yurok tribe commercial fishermen. Photo courtesy of the Del Norte Triplicate, Bryant Anderson
Questioning Senator Wiggins Competence to Serve
It's not just the miners who believe this was an irrational law, many people began to question the ability of Senator Wiggins to serve in the legislature at least as early as 2007. According to the Napa Valley Register Senator Wiggins suffered from unspecified medical conditions which causes a person to lose judgment and memory and makes them prone to irrational outbursts. During this time she sat as the chair of several key environmental committees in the California Senate.
According to the Sacramento Bee MS Wiggins had to be restrained during a committee meeting in 2009 after she attempted to assault a staffer for failing to refill a water glass. Despite her erratic behavior the Senate president stated
[He] met with Senator Wiggins and he's confident that she's capable of performing the core duties of her job.
In 2007, according to the Napa Valley Register, during a fund raising event an attendee noticed Senator Wiggins erratic behavior.
I personally observed Senator Wiggins at an event, and that was my first realization something is not right with her. Koire said, referring to a 2007 fundraiser for another Santa Rosa politician. When Koire approached Wiggins at the event to introduce herself, she said
It took her awhile to move here eyes to my face, and her mout was hanging open.
In 2009, in the Press Democrat, the Santa Rosa area newspaper, reporter Paul Gullixston put it even more bluntly,
"No, she's not competent."
This is the person the environmentalists sought out to write the dredging ban legislation. A person whose competence was questioned by reporters, supporters, the Senate president and her constituents. This is the person who imposed the suction dredging ban which was later ruled unconstitutional. These are the people the small scale miners are up against. People who are willing to go to any lengths, to use any advantage to achieve their objectives even lacking the slimmest of shreds of evidence.
Although it's likely all of California's legislation will be ruled unconstituional, the miners have spent millions in legal fees to overturn the laws. In 2009 an Alameda Court ruled the settlement agreement between the Karuks and the Department was illegal; in 2010 an Alemda Court ruled the Wiggins Dredging ban (SB 670) was unconstitutional; In 2015 an Appeals Court ruled the dredging ban was likely unconstitutional and in 2015 a San Bernardino trial court ruled the entire scheme of the dredging ban was unconstitutional and voided the complete set of regulations the Department had spent four years in preparation.
The issue is now before the California Supreme Court, with both environmentalists, the State and miners saying they're prepared to argue the issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.