Historically, the Snake River Basin, which includes the Salmon, Clearwater, Payette and Weiser river systems in Idaho and the Grande Ronde, Imnaha and Owyhee river systems in Washington and Oregon was home to about half the Columbia River salmon run that included steelhead (ocean going rainbow trout), spring/summer chinook, fall chinook, sockeye and coho salmon.
Before man began damming up the rivers, salmon were known to swim as far up the Snake River as the Shoshone Falls near where the City of Twin Falls sits today. Salmon swam up the Columbia River to the Snake River where they swam until they heeded the call of the natal streams, which could have been in the Snake or any of its tributaries from Shoshone Falls downstream to its mouth. That large area of distribution once included the Owyhee River and that allowed Pacific salmon to swim all the way into Nevada. Just this year about 200 fish caught at the Hells Canyon Dam fish trap were released in the Owyhee River in Nevada. Shoshone Paiute tribal members had the fish brought back for the first time since dams cut the fish off in 1928.
The numbers of salmon coming back every year to the Columbia/Snake fishery were staggering. Estimates of 10-16 million fish with 5-8 million inundating the Snake River Basin. This was before we began destroying spawning habitat in the 19th century by a number of damaging practices by the logging and mining industries. At the same time we were destroying spawning and rearing habitat through virtually unregulated logging and mining, we were also depleting the vast salmon resource through overfishing. We believed hatcheries would solve the problem, but they did not. Nor have they since.
Salmon and steelhead were already on the ropes when this country couldn't seem to be able to say no to a dam project. The Owyhee Dam project, which finished in 1932, was effective in closing off salmon to Nevada in 1928 while it was still under construction.
The Black Canyon Dam on the Payette River, which was completed in 1931, but effectively closed off salmon runs to the Payette River system by 1924, killed off the sockeye, chinook and steelhead that once swam back to the North Fork of the Payette River, Payette Lake and Valley County Idaho. That dam also killed off the sockeye run to Deadwood River.
America wasn't done building dams. However, fish ladders began to be installed at dams. Bonneville Dam, on the Columbia River was constructed (1933-1938). Grand Coulee Dam was also built during this time without a fish ladder, cutting off salmon to the entire upper Columbia River and its tributaries.
We kept building dams on the Columbia and then on the Snake. The Dalles (1952-1957 construction), John Day (1958-1971 construction), McNary Dam (1947-1954). Four lower Snake River dams, which were better than a proposed Nez Perce Dam that would have cut salmon off from the Salmon River forever, are the dams that have imperiled the remaining salmon and steelhead runs of the Snake River Basin more than any other. While they were all constructed with fish ladders, the existence of these four dams on the lower Snake River have accelerated the extinction clock on anadramous salmon and steelhead in the Snake River Basin.
Those lower Snake River dams and their construction timelines are Ice Harbor Dam (1955-1962), Lower Monumental Dam (1961-1969), Little Goose Dam (1963-1970), and Lower Granite Dam (1965-1975).
The Hells Canyon complex of dams (Hells Canyon 1967, Oxbow 1961, and Brownlee Dam 1958), were built without fish ladders cutting salmon off from Shoshone Falls downstream to Hells Canyon Dam. And we built more dams on the tributaries, If Black Canyon Dam wasn't enough on the Payette, perhaps the Cascade Dam in 1948 would be. We continue to plan to build new dams, Idaho Gov. Otter wants to build a dam on the Weiser River. He initially said it would provide cold water that would be beneficial to migrating salmon and steelhead. That went over like a led zeppelin, but he's still pushing to build that dam. The Idaho Legislature passed a law that no dam could be removed without their express consent in 2015.
A common way to sell the construction of new dams was to mitigate through the creation of fish hatcheries the loss of the existing fisheries. We built fish hatcheries with reckless abandon before we built dams with reckless abandon, but by the 20th Century we married the two and created an effective one-two punch to further endanger wild runs of salmon and steelhead throughout the Columbia/Snake basins.
Today, the fate of the endangered and threatened runs of wild steelhead and salmon in the Columbia and Snake river basins is in the hands of federal agencies who have little incentive to recover these fish stocks. They have, for the most part, muted the ire of anglers through the propagation of hatchery fish. Endangered salmon and steelhead mean these agencies have access to more taxpayer and ratepayer dollars than they would have otherwise and therefore this lack of incentive to restore these wild fish isn't surprising at all to this author and probably a great deal of people who are paying attention to this 20-plus year stalemate in the recovery or prolonged extinction of Snake River Basin salmon and steelhead.
In this battle for recovery or extinction, those presiding over the extinction of wild salmon and steelhead have learned that they can spend billions of taxpayer and ratepayer dollars to appear they are doing everything they can to save these fish, while effectively doing nothing about the biggest known threat and perpetrator of this extinction.
Essentially, we would rather shoot and kill, harrass or relocate migrating birds, sea lions, seals and all other things that prey upon salmon and steelhead than confront the real culprit, our overindulgence in the construction of dams. We also know we can and do produce electricity by other means and have the ability to cheaply ship freight over land rather than by water in the Pacific Northwest, yet when this argument butts up against some concrete and rebar, federal politicians and their state counterparts pass or attempt to pass useless legislation that makes it even harder to breach any dam anywhere. Couple that with the oil billionaire brothers Koch and their meddling with state legislatures and power utilities to destroy sustainable energy industries such as solar, and you realize the very people who could set the course toward wild salmon recovery have never had nor have any intention of doing anything other than presiding over the extinction of these fish that are counted upon by 137 other species for survival. People also count on salmon for survival. So, we are doing more than shooting ourselves in the foot when we pay lip service to salmon recovery and work as hard as we've ever worked to ensure nothing substantial is ever done to ensure salmon recovery.
You are always welcome to prove me wrong, but I'm not wrong, so good luck with that.
Here are some numbers from Save Our Wild Salmon and Idaho Rivers United (great people by the way) to help you visualize the situation. Remember, wild fish are the only fish numbers that matter in order for our endangered and threatened stocks of salmon and steelhead to be removed from the endangered species list.
Snake River Sockeye Salmon Returns by the numbers
- Listed as endangered species in 1991
- Historic returns of more than 100,000 to high mountain lakes
- Recovery goal 2,500 natural origin fish returning in eight consecutive years
- Adult returns in 1990 = 0
- Adult returns in 2001 = 26 wild, no hatchery
- Adult returns in 2011 = 150 wild, 1,118 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2012 = 53 wild, 189 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2013 = 76 wild, 192 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2014 = 453 wild, 1,063 hatchery
- Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1992
- Historic annual return 2 million
- No recovery goal established by NOAA Fisheries. Scientists estimate 80,000 wild chinook salmon must return for eight consecutive years to constitute recovery under the ESA
- Adult returns in 1990 = 9,324 wild, 13,066 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2001 = 45,381 wild, 140,653 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2011 = 22,427 wild, 69,243 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2012 = 20,522 wild, 59,028 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2013 = 14,234 wild, 30,214 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2014 = 29,879 wild, 63,273 hatchery
- Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1997
- Historic returns 1 million
- No recovery goal set by NOAA Fisheries, scientists estimate 90,000 wild steelhead returning for eight consecutive years would constitute recovery.
- Adult returns in 1990 = 24,979 wild, 106,369 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2001 = 20,575 wild, 96,727 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2011 = 44,839 wild, 163,457 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2012 = 40,151 wild, 140,169 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2013 = 26,173 wild, 83,009 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2014 = 25,793 wild, 82,117 hatchery
- Listed as threatened in 2005 under Endangered Species Act
- Historic annual returns 150,000
- NOAA Fisheries has not established a recovery goal. Scientists estimate that 3,000 wild fall chinook from at least two distinct populations would constitute recovery.
- Adult returns in 1990 = 100 wild
- Adult returns in 2001 = 5,200 wild, 3,800 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2011 = 8,600 wild, 18,900 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2012 = 11,000 wild, 25,200 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2013 = 21,100 wild, 34,300 hatchery
- Adult returns in 2014 = 14,172 wild, 45,575 hatchery