Will salmon finally win this year?

By Rocky Barker

For the last 35 years I’ve been covering what we call the “salmon wars” in the Pacific Northwest, writing so many stories about salmon heading toward extinction that I’ve lost count.

The decline occurred year by year while we spent $18 billion on what’s politely called “mitigation.” That meant building fish passages around dams without fish ladders or snatching fish from warming rivers and trucking them around dams before they died. Nothing has ever worked.

The truth is that some dams must be removed if salmon are to have a prayer of leaving the ocean and swimming up rivers to spawn.

Now, finally, there is a sign of hope for the fish even as Snake River salmon in the states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington remain close to extinction.

There’s hope because the Biden administration has been in settlement talks with legal plaintiffs the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce tribe, and sporting, fishing and environmental groups. They have sued the federal government five times over its failed attempts to save salmon under the Endangered Species Act, and each time the government has lost.

Meanwhile, spring chinook, sockeye and steelhead trended toward extinction in the Snake River watershed, which includes their best remaining habitat in the lower 48 states.

In 1997, my newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, wrote a series of editorials calling for breaching the four lower Snake dams in Washington to restore salmon abundance. The editorials urged paying for the impacts on dam removal on power supply, grain transportation and irrigation as a more effective and cheaper fix than continuing failed policies. The federal government chose to spend $18 billion on those failed policies.

But now, the Biden administration and others recognize that restoring our rivers is an issue of tribal justice as well as the only real solution. For far too long, say biologists Rick Williams of Idaho and Jim Lichatowich of Oregon, we have treated salmon as an industrial commodity. Our reliance on hatcheries while we continue to fragment and destroy habitat has been at the root of the fish’s struggles.

But if we remove the chief obstacles that block the fish from their cool, high elevation-habitat, the biologists say, these wild, adaptable fish will recover themselves. “Because of our long reliance on substitute nature, we’ve almost lost faith in salmon to reproduce itself in quality habitat,” Williams says.

It has taken decades, but much of the public has come to understand the folly of our industrial fixes for salmon. In the May Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson won reelection by a landslide after introducing a plan to breach the four dams to save salmon and make impacted communities whole. His losing opponent opposed breaching the dams.

More significant, Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who has long resisted any salmon recovery plan that included removing the four dams, joined with Washington Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee in endorsing a study of how to replace the services provided by the dams. 

The study showed that breaching the four dams was the most promising approach to salmon recovery, though it would require spending from $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion to replace the electricity from the dams’ hydropower, plus grain shipping and irrigation.

Murray is the most powerful Northwestern senator in Congress. But she will need the rest of the Democratic delegation to join her if she is going to turn the tide.

Most of all, Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell and Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio will need to join Murray, Simpson, Oregon Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer, and outgoing Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, if legislation is going to pass this year.

The resilience of the wild Snake salmon and the quality of the high-elevation spawning habitat has led biologists to predict the fish will reverse the 40-year extinction trend if the four dams are removed. This might just be the year that rivers and salmon are set free, ending the salmon wars. Here’s hoping.

Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a retired reporter who lives in Idaho and is the author of Saving All the Parts: Reconciling Economics and the Endangered Species Act.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

08/01/2022 Adventure Journal CA
08/02/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
08/02/2022 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
08/02/2022 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
08/02/2022 Tigard Times Tigard OR
08/02/2022 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
08/02/2022 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
08/02/2022 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
08/02/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
08/02/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
08/02/2022 Denver Post Denver CO
08/02/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
08/02/2022 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
08/02/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
08/03/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
08/03/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
08/03/2022 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
08/04/2022 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
08/04/2022 Taos News Taos NM
08/04/2022 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
08/05/2022 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
08/03/2022 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
08/05/2022 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
08/05/2022 Idaho Statesman Boise ID
08/05/2022 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
08/07/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
08/05/2022 Judith Basin Press Judith Basin County MT
08/08/2022 Helena Independent Record Helena MT
08/21/2022 The Daily Yonder Whitesburg Ky
08/25/2022 In These Times Rural Edition OR
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Verne W House
1 year ago

I enjoyed your report on this controversial topic. Well done, thank you for writing it. Simpson’s proposal seemed to lose momentum when PNW elected officials did not push to get it into Build Back Better. But, who knows what will happen next?
I know more about the Kennebec. It is relevant because proponents for removal of the Edwards Dam first had to get FERC to recognize that in stream flows produce benefits. It took ten years for agreement, but on the day the dam came down, I could not find any second guessing or opposition in Maine newspapers. I would send you the AWRA article that the Maine Extension Educator and I wrote if you wish. The anadromous fishes of Maine repopulated the Kennebec and tributaries, according to those who still use the river. The Edwards was the first dam removed in the US.

“Maine’s Kennebec River: Hot Politics, Effective Education,” by Ira L. Ellis and Verne W House, AWRA Jun 1993, pp 239-247.

Scott Hurley
1 year ago

This subject has been smoke and mirrors the last 50 years; government’s agenda to give hope, but ultimately never achieve the hope for the bourgeoisie. My uncle, Salmon, ID, informed the public in the early to mid 70’s the decline of steelhead and salmon on the Salmon River… nearly 50 years ago… but “we” still fail to get it right… shame, shame!

Rick Freimuth
1 year ago

I hope the salmon finally win this year. Thanks for catching us up on the Snake River dam wars Rocky. We lived in Moscow, Idaho from 1975-1994 and these dam removal rumors were always rampant. We had a good friend who worked for the Corps at Lower Granite and hearing about how his job was tied to salmon survival was intriguing yet disheartening. I mean sitting in front of a window counting salmon as they passed by was really ludicrous and in hopes of the single digit numbers of sockeye that would make it to Redfish Lake. Verne in his comment mentioned the removal of Edwards Dam on the Kennebec in Maine. We lived in Maine at that time and it was unreal how that river changed after the Edwards was breached. The Veazie Dam on the Penobscot River was breached in 2013. Atlantic salmon runs and sturgeon were slowly returning afterwards. Since the power generation of the four Snake River dams is inconsiquential to the NW power grid it really is time for the salmon and steelhead to win one. Now let’s make sure Rocky Barker’s Writers On Range article makes into the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Lewiston Tribune, Spokane Spokesman-Review and the Portland Tribune.

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