Western wild salmon may finally get a big win they desperately need

For the past 35 years, I’ve covered what we call the “Salmon Wars” in the Pacific Northwest, and written so many stories about salmon heading for extinction I’ve lost count.

The decline occurred year-on-year while we spent $18 billion on what is politely called “mitigation.” This meant building fish passages around dams without fish ladders or grabbing fish from warming rivers and transporting them around dams before they died. Nothing ever worked.

The truth is that some dams must be removed if salmon are to have a plea to leave the ocean and swim up rivers to spawn.

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

There is hope because the Biden administration has been in settlement negotiations with legal plaintiffs the state of Oregon, the Nez Perce tribe and sports, fishing and environmental groups. They have sued the federal government five times over its failed attempt 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 breaking the four lower Snake dams in Washington to restore salmon abundance. The editorials urged paying for the effects of dam removal on power supply, grain transport 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 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 continuing to fragment and destroy habitat, has been at the root of the fish’s struggles.

But if we remove the main obstacles that block the fish from their cool, high habitat, the biologists say, these wild, adaptable fish will recover. “Because of our long reliance on replacement wildlife, we’ve almost lost faith that salmon can reproduce themselves in quality habitat,” Williams says.

It has taken decades, but a large part of the public has understood the folly of our industrial solutions to salmon. In the Republican primary election in May, US Rep. Mike Simpson won re-election by a landslide after introducing a plan to breach the four dams to save salmon and heal affected communities. His losing opponent resisted breaking the dams.

More significantly, Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who has long resisted any salmon recovery plan that included removing the four dams, joined Washington’s Democratic government. Jay Inslee supports a study of how to replace the services that the dams provide.

The study found that breaching the four dams was the most promising approach to salmon recovery, although it would require spending from $10.3 billion to $27.2 billion to replace the electricity from the dams’ hydropower, plus grain transportation 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 to turn the tide.

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

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

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 living in Idaho and author of Saving All the Parts: Reconciling Economics and the Endangered Species Act.

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