The science is clear: the Snake River’s wild salmon and steelhead are heading towards extinction–that is unless we enact meaningful change. Dams, water quality, ocean conditions, climate change, and anglers–yes, we do have an impact–contribute to the possibility of extinction. However, anglers, river advocates, and everyday individuals from the biggest cities or the smallest towns can help save the Snake River. They can also preserve the tradition, history, and importance wild salmon and steelhead represent for long into the future.
Wild salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest are strong, resilient fish. Their genetic diversity and dispersed spawning timelines makes them remarkably resilient from poor conditions one year to another. However, both salmon and steelhead require quality habitat and rivers–and in times of alarm, left alone. A restored Snake River system provides wild salmon and steelhead with hundreds of miles of quality cold-water spawning and rearing habitats, but the dams need to go.
The Snake River
The 1,078 mile Snake is a wild, storied river. It originates in western Wyoming and flows through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, before merging with the Columbia River and ending in the Pacific Ocean. The Snake was once considered a top salmon producing river in the world and accounted for half of all the Chinook salmon in the Columbia River Basin. Throughout that long, meandering river system, dozens of dams slow river flows, impede or flat-out prevent migrations, and create precarious warm-water caldrons for native species. Of the many dams, four federally managed dams have been most associated to the wild salmon and steelhead declines, and their removal represents the greatest chance at restoring these fish.
The four lower Snake River dams–Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose, and Lower Granite–(LSRDs) are outdated, inefficient, and killing off wild salmon and steelhead. For one, their original intended use was for barge transportation, not power generation. Because the LSRDs don’t have large storage capacity, they are usually unable to operate at full generating capacity in late summer and winter, when power demand is the greatest. Additionally, while clean, reliable power alternatives may not be fully deployable today, that technology will be available soon and foreseeable by the time the dams come down (2031, in Congressman Simpson’s plan).
“It’s been 46 yrs, since the completion of Lower Granite dam, the last of the four lower Snake River dams, to get things right. The fact remains the same, steelhead, Chinook ,and sockeye remain on the Endangered Species list. We are no closer to delisting them today than the day these species were listed.”
Nancy Hirsh, the executive director for the NW Energy Coalition, said the best path forward is to breach the four lower Snake River dams. She said that while the technology perhaps isn’t yet ready for prime time, by the time breaching is a reality, it will be.
Removing the dams is essential, because they’re blocking nearly 140 miles of prime spawning and rearing habitat from salmon, steelhead, and other migratory species. The impact of the more than 50-year old dams cannot be ignored. “Since 1975 when the eight dams (four on the lower Columbia River and four on the lower Snake River) were completed, return rates have only rarely exceeded the 2 percent survival minimum.” The Snake’s wild Sockeye and Chinook salmon and steelhead are endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Further, the Snake River was listed as America’s Most Endangered River in 2021.
“For 50 years, we have tried barging fish, increasing spill over the dams, producing hatchery fish, and implementing dozens of other mitigation efforts,” said Greg McReynolds, TU’s Intermountain Regional Director. “But the fact is that since the construction of the dams, we have never been able to get enough adults to the Snake River’s high-quality spawning waters to keep these fish off an extinction trajectory.”
Salmon used to thrive in Idaho. As legend goes, salmon were the reason for the Snake River’s accidental naming convention. The river’s name came from an S-shaped hand sign made by members of the Shoshones tribe. European explorers misinterpreted this hand sign, which is now thought to have truly meant, “the people who live near the river with many fish.”
Recovering these fish to their historic abundance will be difficult and expensive–it already is. Eric Crawford, TU’s North Idaho Field Coordinator, said “even with over $17 billion spent on mitigation for the impacts of the four lower Snake River dams and those on the Columbia, we are still seeing reduced opportunity and even closures.” But Snake River salmon represent so much culture, history, and opportunity that their recovery may just be possible.
Wild Salmonids Struggling
While multiple factors contribute to declining salmon and steelhead, the dams have the largest impact. The obvious impact is on adult salmon and steelhead returning from the ocean to spawn hundreds of miles upriver. However, the impact on smolts–juvenile steelhead or salmon– is arguably greater. The few fish that do run the gauntlet and successfully spawn leave grim prospects for their offspring.
Pre-dam construction, smolts would swim downriver with the help of a strong current, thrusting them strong and healthy into the vast ocean. Today, however, they have to navigate a series of slow moving, torturously hot reservoirs created by the dams. In addition, the luke-warm reservoirs encourage non-native predators, such as smallmouth bass and walleye, adding another layer to the ever-growing field of threats for salmon and steelhead survival. In sum, the successful life cycle of Snake River smolt is far more difficult to complete today than 60 years ago, pre-dam construction.
Among scientists, salmon and steelhead are often measured by a smolts-to-adult return ratio (SAR). In order to sustain salmon and steelhead runs, a certain amount of adults need to return to their native runs and successfully spawn. Scientists agree that two percent of smolts need to return to sustain wild salmon and steelhead populations. In order to rebuild stocks, however, the SAR needs to be closer to six percent. In the past 25 years, “despite restrictions and closures, SARs have failed to reach even 2 percent.”
A Clear Solution
Late last winter, a group of scientists penned a letter to northwestern Governors, Snake River Salmon Headed for Extinction Without Drastic Action. The letter highlighted some key points:
- The Snake River Basin presently contains 50 percent of the coldwater habitat available to salmon and steelhead in their native range in the Lower 48 — much of it in protected public lands of high quality — and that is predicted to rise to 65 percent by 2080
- The decline of wild salmon and steelhead has occurred despite more than $17 billion spent on efforts to recover the fish
- It is our collective opinion, based on overwhelming scientific evidence, that restoration of a free-flowing lower Snake River is essential to recovering wild Pacific salmon and steelhead in the basin.
Similar calls for action are heard among the outdoor recreation and conservation communities. Patagonia got involved with its Free the Snake Campaign, back in 2015. NRS (Northwest River Supplies) Marketing Director Mark Deming, wrote, “We need to keep these rivers working for the people of the Pacific Northwest and utilize them to keep the people of the Northwest working. I believe that the best way to do that is to decommission the four increasingly costly dams on the Lower Snake,” in Paddling Life. TU and its many partners have engaged on the Snake River for years, but the situation and need for action has never been more dire.
Something has to give. Dean Finnerty, Of Wild Steelheaders United, wrote, “While a changing climate is a major factor in these declines, there are actions we can take to preserve stocks, most urgently by strengthening connections to pristine cold-water spawning habitat in the Snake Basin via the removal of the lower four Snake River dams.”
So, with scientific support for removing the LSRDs to save salmon and steelhead, why haven’t they come down yet? The dams support several key industries in the northwest–shipping, agriculture, and electricity generation. Much of the opposition to removing the dams stems from these industries, and has, for decades, fueled The Salmon Wars, a seemingly-never ending legal saga between salmon advocates and dam proponents.
American Rivers’ President, Tod Kiernan, lays it out simply: “We’re facing a critical choice on the Snake River. We can either stay with the status quo, which means failing salmon runs, more costly litigation, increasing energy insecurity and broken promises to tribes. Or we can choose to invest in salmon recovery and infrastructure solutions that create a future of abundance and prosperity for the region.” This shift took hold in the first few months of 2021.
Congressman Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, unveiled a new approach to the Snake River dam discussion this past February. Rather than maintaining the status quo, which resulted in millions of dollars, countless court battles, polarization, and few signs of recovery, Simpson hopes to forge a lasting compromise. The Congressman’s Energy and Salmon Concept would remove the LSRDs and keep the affected industries whole. “Congressman Simpson’s proposal is bold and demonstrates the kind of leadership we hope for in our elected leaders,” wrote Chris Wood, President and CEO of TU. “[He] is proposing the single largest river restoration in the history of the nation, and doing so in a way that would leave behind none of the communities of place or interest that today depend on the dams.”
The plan for Simpson’s $33.5 billion concept was to fold it into a broader infrastructure legislative package. Unfortunately, the plan failed to gain much attention nor support from the region’s Members of Congress. “Rep. Mike Simpson has provided a once in a lifetime opportunity to recover salmon and steelhead in the Snake River basin,” Eric Crawford said. “And yet, we haven’t seen support from any other elected official other than Rep. Early Blumenauer (D-OR).”
Snake River salmon and steelhead are at an inflection point. Unless drastic changes are implemented, these fish face a certain fate–extinction. Just look at some of these headlines from the past month: “Darkest Hour” for Columbia River Wild Steelhead Returns, Dismal Runs Force Oregon and Washington to Close World-Famous Steelhead Fisheries, and Extreme summer heat puts enormous strain on salmon in Columbia River.
This summer proved to be a worst case scenario for wild salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest. Ocean conditions weren’t ideal, drought took commanding hold through much of west, and record high temperatures on the lower Snake River compounded with an abysmal run of fish. Preliminary steelhead returns were the lowest on record and aren’t showing much sign of improving. So, what little fish made it out of the ocean had to beat the odds of safely passing numerous dams, angling pressure, and dangerously warm waters.
Washington, Oregon, and Idaho have all enacted emergency measures in response to the record-breaking low runs. We’re patching the leak, rather than fully addressing it. “These closures and short-term changes to how and when anglers can fish for summer steelhead are merely delaying the inevitable collapse of the species unless we address the primary limiting factors to recovery,” said Finnerty. “A longer-term solution is needed to rebuild these populations and achieving that will require collaboration between all angler user groups, fishing guides, agencies, and tribal co-managers. Anglers need to speak up and tell managers that we demand management decisions that favor caution in these times.”
The trends among wild Snake River sockeye and chinook salmon were similarly precipitous in recent years. The New Perce Tribe concluded that 42 percent of the Snake Basin spring/summer chinook populations are at quasi-extinction levels (less than 50 fish), and 77 percent of the populations are predicted to follow suit by 2025.
“We view restoring the Lower Snake River—a living being to us, and one that is currently injured—as urgent and overdue,” stated Mr. Shannon F. Wheeler, Nez Perce Tribe Vice-Chairman. “This is indeed an opportunity for diverse regional and political interests to come together for a better and stronger future for the Northwest: river restoration and salmon recovery; local and regional economic investment and infrastructure improvement; and long-term legal resolution and certainty.”
The record swings and dramatic headlines we’re seeing lend to one of the problems surrounding salmon and steelhead recovery: the shifting baseline. Most of the populations of wild salmon and steelhead in the lower 48 are mere fractions of their historic abundance–single digit percentages, in most instances. This fuels the shifting baseline issue, because current-day anglers have no conception of what it was actually like and celebrate a good year’s run or two. When in reality, that “Best run of steelhead in years,” which are often measured on a ten-year running average, is still minuscule in comparison to the pre-dam runs.
This is why sustained advocacy is so important for restoring these runs. “Anglers need to be engaged,” Eric Crawford said. “I’m not just talking about years when runs suck but all the time. If you want a future with abundant salmon and steelhead in the Snake River basin you better be engaged daily.”
Saving wild Snake River steelhead and salmon is not just about fly fishing. It’s about reconnecting a river to local communities and tribes, river rats, tourists from thousands of miles away, but mostly because it’s the right thing to do. All these fish need is a fighting chance, and they’ll storm back. Conditions for wild salmon and steelhead will likely remain challenging as marine and aquatic ecosystems face the impacts climate change. But to throw in the towel is asinine. In light of the challenging future for these fish, the logical response is to give them the best chances possible to return to their natal gravel beds, spawn, and send millions of smolts down-river to do it all over again.
Reconnecting the Snake River, will be a long process. But look at the fight to save Bristol Bay–it by no means happened overnight. But today, Pebble is essentially dead, and the Bristol Bay area is on the verge of securing Clean Water Act protections, because of sustained advocacy from concerned anglers like you. The Snake will require that level of involvement. So, tell Congress: “Time is running out for Snake River salmon and steelhead” today!
So my biggest question is, even if the Snake River dams are removed, aren’t the dams on the Columbia River just as much an obstacle to the salmon recovery? What data do we have that suggests that the Snake River dam removals are sufficient to restore a robust salmon run?
Hey Lou. So, an important thing to consider is not just the effects of dams on adult fish migrating in but also on juveniles/smolts migrating out. The dams and the reservoirs they create take a toll on smolts, which then decreases the overall population in the ocean and the group that will then return to spawn. It’s all about maximizing that smolt-to-adult-return value.
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