Guest Opinions

Governor’s salmon work group is going backward

Chinook Salmon return to Idaho’s Sawtooth Hatchery

Idaho Fish and Game's Sawtooth Fish Hatchery near Stanley is an active place when adult Chinook salmon are rolling in.
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Idaho Fish and Game's Sawtooth Fish Hatchery near Stanley is an active place when adult Chinook salmon are rolling in.

At an April conference, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, publicly committed to restoring Idaho salmon, and Gov. Brad Little announced a “salmon work group.” Little promised a new approach, saying with a smile, “I’m in favor of breaching the status quo.”

His work group is going backward. The first meetings, set up by the Office of Species Conservation, were designed to foster the impression that everything is OK, while ignoring the most lethal problems. In Salmon, the meeting highlighted restoration of more spawning and nursery habitat nearby. To be clear, this is good work, done by good people — but it will not restore salmon. Downriver losses overwhelm it.

The governor’s work group will matter only if its members (and the governor) accept this truth: Idaho salmon cannot be restored by actions inside Idaho.

In salmon policy, Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon River will be the measure of success or failure. That watershed, wonderfully pristine and protected, contains vast salmon spawning habitat that is now virtually vacant. In the 1960s, the Middle Fork supported over 20,000 salmon redds (nests) and 40,000-50,000 chinook annually. In 2017, only 250 redds were counted; in 2018, only 437. If Idaho policy does not restore salmon here, it will not restore salmon anywhere.

Think of it this way: Central Idaho is a vacant 500-room 5-star salmon hotel. Occupancy does not increase by adding rooms. We need state and federal policy that fills empty ones, by addressing downriver survival inequities. Idaho fish need to survive at a 2-6% rate to adulthood, like salmon do now in major Oregon and Washington tributaries. Gov. Little needs to know that Idaho salmon are not allowed to survive as well as Washington and Oregon fish do. Achieving a 2-6% return rate would restore wild salmon in the Middle Fork Salmon — sufficient to delist spring/summer chinook.

A central Idaho rancher says, “When your truck needs a new transmission, you don’t get any farther down the road buying extra seat covers.” Gov. Little understands this.

The agenda for the next meeting in Lewiston is troubling; proposed tours of the Port of Lewiston and Dworshak Dam (with presentations from utility operators and Port agents) will not address survival shortfalls that must be improved to restore Idaho salmon. We ask: Will Gov. Little’s work group be forced by special interests, vested in the status quo, to perpetuate the falsehood that Idaho salmon are doing fine? That salmon need nothing more? That Idaho should remain complicit with, and subordinate to, failed federal policies? Will this group speak for salmon?

Terrible 2019 salmon and steelhead returns call for action, not acquiescence. The limiting factor in recovery is not Idaho habitat; it is poor migration habitat downstream.

The work group should call on Governor Little to work directly with Washington and Oregon to get equity for Idaho fish — a 2-6% smolt-adult return rate. Idaho Rivers United believes that lower Snake River restoration is part of the solution and that people will benefit from it. We want our fish back.

Tom Stuart, of Boise and Stanley, is a board member of Idaho Rivers United, which has led successful challenges to federal salmon policies for over 20 years.
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