Salmon River with Dories
Spring 2012
Convergence The Newsletter for Sundog Expeditions

Wild Salmon:  Web of Life, Way of Life in the Northwest
Returning Wild Salmon to the Heart of Idaho


by Sam Mace

I’ve spent most of my life living near rivers with salmon, or rivers that have lost their salmon. I grew up in a farmhouse in the coastal mountains of Oregon, just a few yards from a salmon and steelhead river called the Millicoma. Clearcut logging and development had reduced the runs to a fraction of historic levels. But enough of these resilient fishing returned each year to provide decent fishing. A nearby retired logger told stories of how the river was once filled with fish, and lamented what logging had cost this river in salmon and steelhead.

Today I live yards from the Spokane River, which lost all its salmon in the early 1900s. Construction of a dam down river ended the run of the ‘June Hogs”—as locals called the 100 pound salmon that once returned to the upper Columbia and its tributaries. It’s also a short walk from my house to the confluence of the Spokane and LatahSockeye Salmon Creek, which for thousands of years was one of the largest tribal fishing sites in the Columbia Basin.

The history of wild salmon and steelhead is a story of decline. But there are pockets of hope. We can restore these amazing fish to rivers where they once thrived and we can adapt our society to coexist with wild salmon and steelhead in small and relatively painless ways. It is the least we can do for a creature that has provided sustenance to hundreds of species—including ours—for thousands of years. One of the greatest opportunities we have to restore wild salmon and steelhead to thousands of miles of river is in the Snake River basin.

Restoring Idaho’s Fish and the lower Snake River

Prior to damming and development, Idaho’s rugged Salmon River teemed with its namesake fish. The journey made by wild salmon and steelhead was one of the great feats of nature, even prior to European settlement. Smolts hatched in rivers up to 900 miles inland and traveled the spring snowmelt downstream to the Snake River, into the Columbia River and on to the ocean. Traveling hundreds of miles up to Alaska or down to California (depending on the species), after a few years the adult salmon headed back to the Columbia, swimming upstream against strong currents, using their powerful tails to leap up waterfalls, and returning to the exact stream where they were born to spawn, die and give life to the next generation.

Today wild salmon face many more obstacles during their travels besides daunting rapids. Most deadly are the eight large dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers that block salmon on both the upstream and downstream legs of their migration.

At the time of Lewis and Clark, between 10 and 16 million wild salmon and steelhead returned to the mouth of the Columbia River before heading to their home rivers and streams in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Only 1 to 3 percent of these once-prolific wild runs remain. All Snake River salmon species are listed as endangered. Wild Snake Coho salmon already are extinct.

The Snake River basin historically produced half of the spring/summer Chinook in the entire Columbia Basin. Some of the greatest runs have gone extinct, completely blocked by three dams in Hells Canyon on the Snake river. Dworshak Dam on the North Fork of the Clearwater River in Idaho wiped out one of the greatest steelhead fisheries in the world.

Still, thousands of miles of excellent salmon and steelhead habitat remains in the Snake River basin, with small wild runs still returning to the far reaches of central Idaho, northeast Oregon and southeast Washington. While the runs witnessed by Lewis and Clark are a distant memory, we have an opportunity to restore wild salmon and steelhead to healthy, fishable numbers the region enjoyed just a few decades ago. By removing four outdated and unnecessary dams on the lower Snake River, scientists say healthy runs could return within 20 years, providing nutrients to rivers, recreation, and thousands of fishing jobs from Idaho to the coastal fishing towns on the West Coast.

When there were only four dams downstream on the mainstem of the Columbia, enough fish survived to maintain healthy runs. However, when the four lower Snake River dams were built in eastern Washington in the 1960s and 70s to create a seaport in Idaho, wild runs plummeted by almost 90 percent. For the past few decades salmon runs have averaged just 17 percent of the level scientists say is needed for recovery.

Federal Agencies Shirk Responsibility

The federal agencies in charge of fisheries, rivers and the hydro system—NOAA Fisheries, the Corps of Engineers and Bonneville Power Administration (BPA)—have shirked their duty to wild salmon. By its own admission, the federal government’s most recent recovery plan would only slow the rate of extinction of wild salmon. And this flawed plan comes with a $6 billion dollar price tag. Arguing that dams are “part of the landscape”-- and therefore the agencies aren’t responsible for the large numbers of fish the dams kill-- the Bush Administration instead proposed more trucking and barging of fish around the dams and other expensive Salmonmeasures that have already been tried and failed.

Thanks to a federal judge in Portland, this illegal plan has been thrown out and the agencies directed to head back to the drawing board and develop a real recovery plan. The government has until October 2006 to complete their task. At Judge James Redden’s direction, additional water is being spilled at the dams to help young salmon smolts migrate to the ocean in a faster and safer manner.”

Most encouraging is the growing support for removing the four lower Snake River dams and restoring 140 miles of free-flowing river. These four dams provide no flood control, little irrigation and only a small fraction of BPA’s power. These are dams that don’t make fiscal sense.

A restored river, however, would mean a boon for wild salmon populations and the local communities who depend on sport fishing and other recreation. Studies show that a restored fishery would bring as much as half a billion additional dollars into Idaho alone. Factor in the benefits to sport fishing businesses down the length of the Snake and Columbia rivers, plus the benefits to commercial fishing towns from Astoria to southeast Alaska, and the economic benefits to the region clearly outweighs the benefits of four outdated and unnecessary dams on the lower Snake River.

More than 1,100 sportfishing, commercial fishing and outdoor recreation businesses sent a letter to Congress last May calling for a real recovery plan for Snake River salmon and emphasizing dam removal as the cheapest and most effective option available. Last summer, a well-known fisheries expert -- who spent decades consulting for the industries opposed to dam removal -- publicly reversed his position. Dr. Don Chapman now tours the region, advocating dam removal as the only effective option for restoring Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead.

Fishing businesses, sportsmen, conservation groups and citizens who live in the communities along the river are also working to develop a restoration plan that replaces the benefits the dams do provide and insures that communities have a smooth transition to a natural river economy. By doing the necessary planning today to improve rail and highway transportation, modernize irrigation equipment and design vibrant waterfronts in communities along the future free-flowing river, farmers, shippers and others can prosper as river restoration begins.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress to move this work forward. With more than 80 cosponsors in Congress and bipartisan support, The Salmon Planning Act (H.R. 2015) gives the Corps of Engineers authority to remove the four lower Snake River dams and calls for the necessary economic studies and planning to prepare for this common sense—and if we want healthy salmon and steelhead runs—inevitable step.

Our Northwest rivers need salmon to be complete. So do the communities and families who depend on salmon for jobs, for recreation, and most importantly, that direct connection to the natural world. I was lucky enough to experience that connection daily growing up on the Millicoma, and it is what inspires me today to work for the restoration of wild salmon and steelhead in the Snake River and its tributaries. And now living above the Spokane River, I’m reminded daily of how the loss of salmon impoverishes a river. We absolutely can bring back the Snake River’s salmon. Perhaps one day we can bring salmon back to the Spokane too.

You can help

The growing momentum for dam removal and real salmon recovery is the result of diverse businesses and citizens from around the country working together on behalf of wild salmon and steelhead. The Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition (SOS) includes more than 50 conservation groups, commercial fishing associations, sportfishing groups and businesses, taxpayer advocates and other interests from around the nation.

You can help. Write and call your Members of Congress. Send a letter to your local newspaper. Come to Washington, DC for an SOS-sponsored salmon shuttle. Invite an SOS representative to speak to your community group. Visit www.wildsalmon.org to receive regular issue updates and for general information. If you have any questions, contact Sam Mace at 509-747-2030 or sam@wildsalmon.org.

Sam Mace

Based in Spokane, Wash., Sam Mace lives for floating and fishing the Northwest's great salmon rivers. She is the Inland Northwest Project Director for Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.