Boots on the Ground is a new Flylords’ series to highlight individuals working locally to protect, restore, and enhance some pretty fishy places. For our first installment, we check in with Eric Crawford, who is working with Trout Unlimited to remove the four lower Snake River dams and ensure an abundant future for wild salmon and steelhead in the Northwest.

Flylords: Eric, before we dive into all things Snake River and Trout Unlimited, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Eric: My name is Eric Crawford. I’m the North Idaho Field Coordinator for Trout Unlimited, and one of the main campaigns that I work on is the Snake River campaign and the removal of the four lower Snake River dams. In addition to that, I work on “Up Country” public land protections, mainly in the Clearwater Basin. A little bit about myself–I live in north-central Idaho in a little town called Moscow with my wife and two kids. Prior to my advocacy work with TU, I spent a 22-year career with Idaho Fish and Game as a Conservation Officer.

The Grande Ronde River is a nationally renowned sport fishery, one of the top three in the region. The mainstem and its major tributaries provide spawning and rearing habitat for wild and hatchery stock of spring Chinook, fall Chinook, summer steelhead and rainbow trout.

Flylords: I know this could turn into a few thousand words, but can you describe the Snake River? 

Eric: So, when we talk about the Snake River, our campaign is focused on the Lower Snake and, specifically, the four lower Snake River dams. The reason why we focus on that and why we are so adamant about removing those dams is the sheer size of the Snake River Basin and its fairly intact and accessible historic habitat. It’s important to put all this into perspective. The size of the basin is larger than the land mass of New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

Historically, 10-16 million salmon and steelhead returned to the mouth of the Columbia River; of that, almost 50 percent of those fish originated from the Snake River Basin. Granted, we have lost some habitat, but we do still have 47 percent of historic habitat and thousands of miles of rivers and streams that are accessible.  Those are some of the reasons why we need to remove the four lower Snake River dams–we need to unlock the massive amount of habitat up-river, if we want to have a future with abundant wild salmon and steelhead.

Flylords: What is the current condition of the Snake River and its ecosystem? How’d we get here?

Eric: Beginning in 1962, the lower Snake River hydro system began development, first with Ice Harbor Dam and ending in 1975 with Lower Granite Dam. If you go back and look at run numbers, you’ll see that there was a very significant corresponding decline in both salmon and steelhead returns to the Snake River Basin. In the 80’s, there was a concerted effort to produce hatchery fish to offset the dams’ mortality effect on wild fish. At the same time, there were robust efforts to improve habitat.

But since the mid-19th century,  we still have never seen the salmon and steelhead runs recover to what they once were. Sure, we have opportunity, but that is only due to continued hatchery production. Today, most of the species of salmon and steelhead on the Snake are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Yet since their listings, nothing has changed, and today’s run numbers are generally no different than the day they were listed. We are confident that to increase survival of wild salmon and steelhead smolts and adults, it is necessary to remove the four lower Snake River dams.

Credit: Ben Herndon

Flylords: As TU’s North Idaho Field Coordinator, you kind of epitomize the idea of “Boots on the Ground.’ Tell us about some of your local efforts to restore these fish?

Eric: For any campaign, it is important to engage our membership, grassroots partners, and local stakeholders directly. We’re constantly discussing decisions surrounding the Snake Basin and advocating for the removal of the four lower Snake River dams. More recently, we held a seat on the Idaho Governor’s salmon work group, a collaborative effort to discover solutions and generate policy recommendations with the goal of increasing wild salmon and steelhead numbers.

Our water and habitat staff work tirelessly to repair historic habitat, primarily on the Lemhi, Yankee Fork, and the Upper Grande Ronde Rivers. With 62% of the Snake River basin’s historic habitat intact and accessible, habitat isn’t the limiting factor. We need a free flowing lower Snake River so these fish can utilize these restored and historic habitats to the fullest extent.

But the idea of engagement is important too, because not everyone is going to be able to chase steelhead this year or next. So, we’ve partnered with a bunch of different groups and media platforms to spread awareness and education and to engage with as many people as possible. It is so important that we grow our voice to impress upon elected leaders the importance of robust, wild steelhead and salmon runs in the Snake River Basin.

Flylords: How important were the wild salmon and steelhead for your community and others like yours?

Eric: From an angling perspective, so many people don’t realize or have forgotten the opportunities that wild fish once provided Snake River communities before the development of the hydroelectric systems. Today, we are reliant on a hatchery population, which does provide important opportunity, but they don’t provide the resiliency and long-term survival characteristics of wild fish.  One community that is somewhat misunderstood, and quite honestly forgotten, are the Nez Perce. They are committed to the Treaty of 1855 and all the rights and privileges that the Treaty affords them. But, what was once a sustainable life with abundant salmon and steelhead, is no longer for the Nez Perce Tribe.

Credit: Ben Herndon

Flylords: Going off that, restoring the Snake River has become a semi-national issue. What has the broader effort to remove the four lower Snake River dams and bringing the salmon and steelhead back looked like?

Eric: Many of you may recall that in February of 2021, Representative Mike Simpson from Idaho released his Columbia Basin Initiative. It was a robust, broad reaching proposal that included the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams. But in addition to that, it provided an outlet for the agriculture and transportation communities that rely on the Snake River dams and funding for infrastructure upgrades throughout the basin. That really changed the trajectory of removing the four lower Snake River dams, and today we’re seeing other Representatives of Congress actively engaging on the issue–not to mention the groundswell of support both locally in the basin and throughout the country.

Flylords: The Snake and Columbia River fisheries once teemed with strong runs of wild fish. But a lot has changed, and now it feels like all the user groups in these river systems are fighting over the dwindling runs. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Eric: It’s almost a sad state of affairs. Here we are now, fighting over what was supposed to be the mitigation solution to dwindling wild runs–the hatchery fish.  So, it’s unfortunate that we see all these different user groups fighting over a dwindling resource, but that makes it all the more important to advocate for the restoration of robust, abundant runs of wild salmon and steelhead throughout the Snake River Basin.

Flylords:  What’re the roadblocks or opposition to removing the four lower dams and restoring the river? And the opportunities to achieve that? 

Eric: There are several significant roadblocks, but it’s also important to recognize the economic opportunities the dams do provide many communities throughout the Northwest. You can’t ignore the large wheat and legumes producers in the basin, or the barging industry, or the not insignificant amount of electricity produced by hydroelectric power plants that the dams make possible. Consistently, the Snake River Dams contribute about 5% to the overall electrical grid in the Northwest, but technology is constantly advancing, improving, and becoming more and more efficient. So, there are solutions to these challenges and paths forward that include people and salmon and steelhead.

Flylords: Just a couple months ago, we all celebrated the great news about Bristol Bay, but here we are again with another massive issue. These fish are teetering on extinction. Do you have hope that we can save them? 

Eric: Great point, there was much to celebrate with Bristol Bay and rejecting Pebble Mine, but the issues on the Snake River are not new. Whereas, we were just saying no to Pebble Mine, we are working to actually remove four massive structures in a river–it’s quite different and arguably more difficult. Am I confident that something is going to change, yea absolutely–something is going to change. Whether that’s through our efforts of advocacy,  outreach, and engagement with our Congressional representatives. Honestly, however, when the  authorities that manage the dams realize that their efforts to recover these fish just are not working, they’ll have no other choice. Residents in the Northwest will come to understand that there are innovative alternatives to offset the impacts of removing the dams, but right now there is only one answer to saving the basin’s wild salmon and steelhead–removing the four lower Snake River dams.

Flylords: What are the ways anglers can get more involved and advocate for restoring the snake river and its wild salmon and steelhead?

Eric: First off, learn about the issue. There’s been a lot of hype around steelhead this year, so you’ve probably learned a little bit about these fish and their threats. But it’s important to not lose focus and get distracted by one year’s headlines. Anglers need to get studied up and then it’s time to engage your Congressional representation. Take advantage of TU’s resources and call to action page to make your voice heard. Also, support the many other groups engaging on removing the four lower Snake River dams. To sum it up, just make your voice hear loud and clear that you want wild and abundant runs of salmon and steelhead to return to the Snake River Basin before we lose them forever.

Photos by Josh Duplechian and Ben Herndon

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