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Commentaries and editorials

Salmon Are In Trouble Now,
and Breaching is Crucial

by Greg Stahl
Idaho Statesman, September 20, 2009

By all appearances, the federal government's 2008 Biological Opinion on Columbia Basin salmon and steelhead recovery was illegal - and still is.

The Adaptive Management Implementation Plan, an Obama administration supplement released Sept. 15, includes "a contingency plan process to address the possibility of a significant decline in the abundance of listed fish."

In other words, it is a plan to start planning; it is a study to consider studying, if or when fish populations decline.

Herein lies the document's fundamental flaw: In writing this addendum to the 2008 Biological Opinion, the government assumes fish recovery required by the Endangered Species Act is under way, or has already occurred. The facts speak for themselves. Idaho's wild salmon and steelhead are clearly far below biologists' recovery targets, and this hasty generalization will only delay actions that could lead to recovery and delisting.

In the 1950s, before construction of the lower Snake River dams, more than 100,000 spring/summer chinook returned to Idaho. The isolated high point for wild spring/summer chinook since 1979 was in 2001, when nearly 45,000 returned to Idaho. The 30-year average is far lower, about 11,000 wild fish. Similarly, this year's return to Idaho of more than 700 sockeye salmon, almost solely the product of court-ordered spill and hatchery production, is a fraction of what constitutes recovery. The benchmark set for this iconic endangered species is 2,500 fish for eight consecutive years, and that is far lower than the 120,000 estimated to have once returned to the high mountain lakes of Idaho.

The fact is, salmon are already in trouble. "Significant decline" is upon us, and salmon are hanging on in large part because of costly hatchery programs and court-ordered spill - which this plan puts at risk.

Spawning habitat and estuary improvements are great, but independent scientific assessments are consistent: If you're serious about recovering Snake River salmon, removal of the four lower Snake River dams is an essential part of a scientifically sound blueprint.

The government's amended plan tips its hat to dam removal, but we must prepare for this step now, not discuss whether to study it in 2016.

Rather than confront the issue head on, this administration showed a lack of leadership, which perpetuates uncertainty for the Northwest's endangered fish, for communities like Lewiston and Riggins and for working families and jobs. It shows that the government's primary goal is to keep the dams, not the fish, from extinction.

Greg Stahl is assistant policy director for Idaho Rivers United in Boise.
Salmon Are In Trouble Now, and Breaching is Crucial
Idaho Statesman, September 20, 2009

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