For the past 35 years I’ve covered what we call the “Salmon Wars” in the Pacific Northwest, writing so many stories about endangered salmon that I’ve lost count. .
The decline happened year over year as we spent $18 billion on what is politely called “mitigation”. This meant building fishways around dams without fish ladders or snatching fish from warming rivers and trucking them around dams before they died. Nothing ever worked.
The truth is that some dams need to be removed if salmon are to be allowed to leave the ocean and travel 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 near extinction.
There is hope because the Biden administration has entered settlement talks with legal plaintiffs, the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce tribe, and sports, fishing and environmental groups. They sued the federal government five times for its failed attempts to save salmon under the Endangered Species Act, and each time the government lost.
Meanwhile, spring chinook, sockeye salmon, and rainbow trout were trending 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 the breaking of the four lower Snake Dams in Washington to restore salmon abundance. Editorials urged paying for the impacts of dam removal on power supply, grain transportation and irrigation as a more efficient and cheaper solution than continuing failed policies. The federal government chose to spend $18 billion on these failed policies.
But now the Biden administration and others recognize that restoring our rivers is a matter of tribal justice as well as the only real solution. For too long, say biologists Rick Williams of Idaho and Jim Lichatowich of Oregon, we’ve treated salmon like an industrial commodity. Our reliance on hatcheries as we continue to fragment and destroy habitat has been the root of fish struggles.
But if we remove the major barriers that block fish from their cool, high-altitude habitat, biologists say, these wild, adaptable fish will recover. “Because of our long reliance on surrogate nature, we almost lost faith in salmon to spawn in quality habitat,” Williams says.
It took decades, but much of the public has come to understand the folly of our industrial salmon solutions. In May’s Republican primary, U.S. Representative Mike Simpson won re-election by landslide after he introduced a plan to break all four dams to save the salmon and make affected communities whole. His losing opponent objected to breaking the dams.
More importantly, Democratic Washington Senator Patty Murray, who has long resisted any salmon recovery plan to remove the four dams, joined Democratic Washington Governor Jay Inslee in endorsing a study on how to replace services provided by dams.
The study showed that breaking all four dams was the most promising approach to salmon recovery, although it would require expenditures of $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion to replace electricity hydroelectricity from dams, as well as grain transport and irrigation.
Murray is the most powerful senator from the Northwest in Congress. But she will need the rest of the Democratic delegation to join her if she wants to reverse the trend.
Importantly, Democratic Washington Senator Maria Cantwell and Democratic Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio will have to join Murray, Simpson, Democratic Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer and outgoing Oregon Governor Kate Brown, if the legislation is to be passed. adopted this year.
The resilience of wild snake salmon and the quality of high-altitude spawning habitat have led biologists to predict that the fish will reverse the 40-year extinction trend if all four dams are removed. This may be the year the rivers and the salmon are freed, ending the salmon wars. Here is the hope.
Rocky Barker is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating lively conversation about the West. He is a retired journalist who lives in Idaho and is the author of Saving All Parties: Reconciling Economics and Endangered Species Law.