Memorial Day weekend has been the peak of Riggins’ spring chinook fishing season the past 25 years.
But that’s not necessarily so this year.
The salmon returns throughout the Columbia Basin have been dismal so far, a continuation of the downturn caused by warm Pacific Ocean conditions since 2014. So far, only about 47,000 salmon have crossed the Bonneville Dam, down from the 10-year average of 129,000.
Only about 6,000 have crossed the last of the eight dams between the Pacific and Idaho: the Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River in southeastern Washington near Lewiston. Luckily for Riggins residents, most of those fish are heading their way. They’ll have a fishing season and a chance for outfitters and fishing-related businesses to make a living.
But guides and sporting shops on the Clearwater River aren’t so lucky, at least not yet.
Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists are watching closely to see whether this season’s chinook run is merely slow or low. Then they will decide whether they can open the season there. They’ll also decide whether they can open the season on the summer chinook runs in places like the South Fork of the Salmon River east of Cascade.
All of these seasons are tied to hatcheries. That’s because — even with all the work of biologists and officials for decades — the wild spring-summer chinook, the most prized salmon in the Columbia Basin, are still listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
And in fact, it’s worse than that. These fish are heading toward extinction.
How salmon, steelhead research has helped
Wild salmon and steelhead are the symbol of the wild heart of Idaho and the Pacific Northwest.
They not only bring wealth to fishing communities from Alaska to Stanley, but they also provide spiritual sustenance to the region’s Native American tribes. They carry nutrients and energy from the Pacific to the 22 million acres of roadless and wilderness habitat in the center of the state.
Saving Idaho’s salmon has been critical to the economy of Riggins, and for years, community leaders there have been disappointed. They believe Idaho political leaders have largely forgotten them. That changed last month when Republican Rep. Mike Simpson made a commitment to do all he can to restore “healthy, sustainable” salmon populations in Idaho at a conference of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University.
He was not alone.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced at the same meeting that he is creating a statewide working group to develop an Idaho-based solution for recovering salmon. His first meeting, open to the public, is June 28.
Luckily for Little, he has a great foundation from where he can start: Idaho’s salmon science.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has been studying salmon and steelhead for decades, providing fisheries scientists a baseline for measuring the productivity they must reach to return “healthy, sustainable” and abundant wild runs to the state.
Idaho’s salmon and steelhead research has allowed it to stand on firm ground when it challenged the political power of downstream states, electrical utilities and industries that were satisfied to replace wild salmon with hatchery fish as more and more dams were built. Idaho Fish and Game commissioners set aside wild steelhead refuges in the 1970s.
So in the 1980s, when downstream fishermen chafed at the restrictions they faced to protect Idaho’s wild steelhead, Fish and Game Research Chief Jerry Mallet sent biologists into the Middle Fork and the South Fork of the Salmon River drainages.
Their mission? To find and begin studying the remaining populations. That work helped Idaho Attorney General Jim Jones defend Idaho’s place at the decision-making table and saved the wild fish.
At the same time, federal biologists and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a dam bypass system that collected salmon smolts as they swam downstream through the powerhouses. There the system placed them on barges to carry them beyond all eight dams and dropped them below Bonneville. It helped steelhead, especially in low-water years.
But overall, salmon and steelhead numbers have continued to drop since the last dam was built in 1975. Idaho biologists, especially Charles Petrosky, discovered trends in the salmon survival data. They found that in addition to the salmon that were dying in the dam and reservoir system, others died later of what they called delayed mortality.
The highest delayed mortality came from the salmon that went through the powerhouses and the bypass systems. But even those salmon that went over the spillways, the best route, suffered. That effect was documented in studies Petrosky published with biologists from the Columbia River Tribal Fish Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others.
These studies were controversial because they undercut the case for the fish barging system that allowed the federal dams to produce the most electricity unimpeded. The Idaho Fish and Game Commission found that removing the four lower Snake dams was the best way to recover Idaho’s salmon and steelhead biologically.
The controversy over dam removal, especially since it would close the Port of Lewiston, forced political leaders to reject their analysis. But to the credit of every governor since then, they never tried to reverse those findings.
They didn’t accept them, either, but leaders allowed Petrosky to continue his research and his critical role on regional science panels such as the Fish Passage Center’s Comparative Survival study group. Petrosky retired, but he continued to work with the study group until last year.
The group’s research helped federal managers move away from the barges to removable spillway weirs that aided salmon’s migration over the spillways. Most notably, the work was recognized by a series of federal judges. And, most recently, it was recognized by virtually all parties in a so-called spill agreement between the Bonneville Power Administration, the Nez Perce Tribe, Oregon, Idaho, the Columbia tribes and the Corps.
The agreement is designed to determine whether Petrosky’s research is true.
Fish and Game has its share of critics who complain that the agency hasn’t done enough to save wild salmon and steelhead over the past 20 years. But as the story of Petrosky’s successes show, we might not still have wild salmon and steelhead if it weren’t for the agency and its science.
With the fish on the edge of extinction again, it’s clear what we have done in the past hasn’t been enough. Gov. Little now has the chance to bring Idaho back into the lead to save our salmon and steelhead for us to enjoy today, and for our children and grandchildren to enjoy in the future.