Lives on the Line

Idaho’s native salmon are slipping toward extinction, intensifying calls for removal of dams that restrict the fish’s long migration from the Pacific to Idaho’s peaks.

  • Rocky Barker
  • Conservation
  • Sep 23, 2020

Famed for their flavor and fight, Chinook salmon are prized among anglers and Native peoples in the West. To reach spawning sites in Idaho, the fish must swim more than 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean through a gauntlet of dams. This deadly trial is one of several factors that have caused Chinook numbers to plunge. (Photo by Mark Conlin/Alamy Stock Photo)

MIKE SIMPSON WALKED THROUGH a wet meadow along the banks of Marsh Creek in Idaho’s Sawtooth National Recreation Area in July of 2018 and came upon two, 3-foot-long Chinook salmon—an increasingly rare find. 

Simpson, a Republican congressman who represents eastern Idaho, came to see the native fish that bring anglers—and millions of dollars—to his district’s rural riverside communities. One of nature’s migratory marvels, these salmon swim more than 900 miles from the Pacific Ocean through the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon into the Snake River—passing eight dams along the way—up to their natal spawning grounds in Central Idaho. They climb to elevations as high as 7,000 feet, the highest-elevation salmon spawning grounds on Earth. 

Though not an angler himself, Simpson was awed to watch a female Chinook turned on her side in the gravel and digging a redd, or nest, for her eggs after making that marathon swim. After a male fertilizes the eggs, the adult fish die, their nutrient-packed bodies feeding everything from insects to eagles to bears, making them a keystone species. “These are the most incredible creatures I think God has created,” Simpson said. “We shouldn’t mess with them.”

Unfortunately, humans—and nature—have messed with them plenty, pushing wild salmon throughout the Columbia River Basin near extinction and threatening an ecosystem and treasured way of life. Though numbers are tough to pinpoint, researcher Tim Copeland of Idaho Fish and Game estimates that, in the late 1800s, more than a million wild Chinook returned to Idaho in spring and summer. In 2019, he says, fewer than 5,000 returned, while the goal to achieve a sustainable harvest is 98,000.

That grim decline is rooted in human action. We’ve cut down forests to replace them with farms and dried up rivers where salmon spawn to irrigate our crops. Mines have filled streams with heavy metals and sediment that taint waters, including spawning grounds. We’ve channeled rivers and diked them off from the flood plains that made them cool and complex—ideal places for fish in their first year of life. And as wild fish declined, people built hatcheries to meet demand from sport and commercial anglers. Today, there are far more hatchery fish than wild salmon in the Snake River, diluting the gene pool that had allowed native salmon to adapt and thrive.

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Angler casting for trout in Warm Springs Creek, Idaho.

Capturing Idaho’s allure, Warm Springs Creek tempts an angler to cast for trout. Whether for trout, salmon or other quarry, sport fishing in the state is a treasured way of life that brings in tens of millions of dollars a year.

Adding insult to injury

Then came the dams. Completed in the 1970s, four dams on the lower Snake River include locks that allow barges to transport wheat to the sea. But they’ve also created 140 constricted river miles with huge reservoirs where slow-moving water heats to levels harmful to salmon and harbors predatory fish that eat them. Though the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells power from the dams, has spent millions on fish ladders, spill release plans and other strategies to mitigate loss of Chinook, sockeye, steelhead and other migratory fish, the numbers remain grim. In 1991, Snake River sockeye were federally listed as endangered; Snake River Chinook followed with listings in 1992.

Rising temperatures and shifting ocean conditions are also depleting fish numbers. When river temperatures top about 68 degrees F, salmon suffer stress and reduced reproduction and become more vulnerable to disease. In 2015, water temperatures in parts of the Columbia River Basin rose past 72 degrees, and millions of returning adult salmon died, mostly sockeye, which migrate throughout the summer. “Years like 2015 will become more frequent by 2070,” says Nate Mantua, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist in Santa Cruz, California. 

Warming ocean temperatures are also taking a toll. Once young salmon reach the sea, they spend up to seven years feeding on prey such as herring, which, in turn, feed on tiny crustaceans that are dwindling as temperatures rise. Since 2014, adds Mantua, we’ve seen the warmest North Pacific temperatures ever recorded, with waters running 1 to 6 degrees F higher than average.

The decline of Chinook salmon may spell the end for the critically endangered Southern Resident population of killer whales, or orcas, which primarily feed on Chinook along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, often at the mouth of the Columbia River. Now numbering fewer than 75 individuals, these whales have inspired international concern as reports of starving orcas have made headlines in recent years. 

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Orcas ply Pacific Northwest waters, often on the hunt for Chinook salmon. The endangered Southern Resident orca population has dipped below 75, in part due to a scarcity of Chinook.

The path to salvation

Ironically, empathy for orcas has reignited collaborative efforts to save migratory salmon. It’s been a long fight. 

For more than 30 years, conservation groups, sportsmen, Indian tribes and fish-related businesses have been waging a campaign to save migratory salmon and steelhead in the Northwest. Many argue that the best way to save Idaho’s salmon is to remove the four dams on the lower Snake River—a controversial plan that has spawned endless lawsuits and pitted powerful interests against each other, from hydropower providers, grain shippers and farmers to conservationists, the sporting community and Native peoples, particularly in the Nez Perce Tribe.

“The dams have had a devastating impact on Nez Perce fishing, cultural places, health, economy and our way of life,” says tribal member Joe Oatman, a member of Idaho’s Salmon Workgroup and a proponent of dam removal. “As go the salmon runs, so go the salmon people.”

Though a federal environmental impact statement released this summer opposes dam removal, the fight is far from over. In August, the governors of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana agreed to launch a new effort to study salmon recovery, involving all stakeholders and starting with the science and implications of dam removal—a historic step. “These governors have all realized that wild salmon may go functionally extinct on their watch,” says Tom France, executive director of the National Wildlife Federation’s Northern Rockies, Prairies, and Pacific Regional Center. “Their power and their legacies lie in coming together and forging a regional solution that saves salmon and meets other needs.”

At the federal level, Simpson has become a leading voice in the fight to save salmon. In March, at a hearing of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, he made his case. “I noticed you all mentioned hydropower, irrigation and transportation ... but nobody mentioned fish,” Simpson said. “In the next 15 years, if something isn’t done, they will be extinct.” 

But making the case for dam removal also means addressing concerns about electricity supply, grain shipping and irrigation. “We can save salmon only by breaching the dams,” says Brian Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Wildlife Federation, an NWF affiliate. “But we can only do that by investing in new infrastructure that will not harm grain growers and buyers of Bonneville power.” Brooks and a large coalition of stakeholders believe that dam removal will allow for massive investment in new forms of renewable, green energy and transportation routes that will create high-paying jobs. “Just the construction alone will create jobs,” he says, “and then we’ll revive another huge industry: fishing.” 

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Washington’s Elwha River again runs free at the former site of the Glines Canyon Dam, one of two dams removed from the river by 2014. The removals revived depleted salmon populations and helped restore an entire ecosystem.

When dams tumble, life rebounds

The most powerful argument for removing the four dams is the dramatic success seen elsewhere. In 1999, the Edwards Dam was removed on the Kennebec River in Maine, restoring an explosion of life to the river ecosystem. Since then, nearly 1,200 dams have been removed nationwide with similar results. “When dams are removed, rivers heal themselves,” says Joseph Bogaard, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition. “In every instance in the Northwest, when we have restored rivers, salmon and steelhead return—and almost always more quickly and in greater numbers than even the scientists predicted.”

That was true after two dams came down on Washington’s Elwha River. Completed in 2014, it is the world’s largest dam removal to date, freeing the river for the first time in 100 years. The ecosystem began to rebound almost immediately. Sediments once blocked by the dams quickly flowed downriver to replenish the estuary in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which was repopulated with crabs, shrimp and other marine life that benefit fish and birds. Some 800 acres of new habitat formed at the site of former reservoirs, attracting beavers and many other species. Most significant, fish runs that had tumbled from about 400,000 to just 3,000 after the dams’ construction began to rebound. Last summer, according to the Seattle Times, some 7,500 Chinook returned to the Elwha, the most in a generation.

The same could happen for Idaho, which has some of the most pristine cold-water salmon habitat in the nation—if only the fish could reach it. Simpson argues that power generation and transportation on the lower Snake “can be done differently”—if there’s the will. “But salmon need one thing,” he adds. “They need a river.”

Activists gather outside the US Army Corps of Engineers offices in Portland, Ore., on March 1, 2020, to build pressure against governing bodies on day one of a march to the Ice Harbor Lock and Dam in Burbank, Wash., to gather support for the removal of the four lower Snake River dams which they say are responsible for the deaths of 8 million wild salmon each year.


Saving salmon

The National Wildlife Federation has long advocated for removal of the four dams on the lower Snake River to save salmon and steelhead. In 1998, it passed a resolution calling for the move, and in 2001, joined a lawsuit to urge federal agencies to abide by the Endangered Species Act and protect salmon in the Columbia River Basin. Today, NWF, its affiliate Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) and other partners in the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition continue to advocate for dam removal while urging investment in infrastructure for green energy, irrigation and transportation. “Breaching the dams is the single best thing we can do to improve returns of Idaho’s wild salmon,” says IWF Executive Director Brian Brooks. “This fish is the foundation of our ecosystem, and we’re seeing it disappear.”

Award-winning author and environmental journalist Rocky Barker lives in Boise, Idaho.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Salmon Migration: A journey that connects us all »
Running the Gauntlet »
Wild Salmon Should Unite Us »
NW Forging a Collaborative Course of Action for Snake River Salmon »

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