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Boise High School Students Want to Save the Salmon.
So They're Educating Idaho Youth

by Becca Savransky
Idaho Statesman, March 15, 2022

Instead of succumbing to the challenges of the past few years,
young climate activists are learning to adapt and build on their past actions.

Outside Garfield Elementary School in Boise, just as snowflakes started to fall, a group of fifth graders played a game of tag -- with a spin.

One student held an orange ball, which symbolized the sun, tagging others who played the role of salmon. If the salmon got tagged, they joined two other students who held hands and formed a dam on the other side of the pavement. As more salmon got eliminated, the dam got longer and moved closer, making the space students had to run smaller and smaller.

By the end, only a few salmon survived. The purpose of the game, called "salmon tag," was to teach students about the factors contributing to extinction of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest: the four lower Snake River dams and climate change, Shiva Rajbhandari, a high school junior, told the Idaho Statesman.

"I think they see that, yeah, the dam was killing the salmon. But without global warming and increasing temperatures, the salmon can hang on a lot longer," Rajbhandari said.

The game was led by Rajbhandari and Lauren Legarreta, two Boise high school students who are part of the Youth Salmon Protectors group. The mission of the group, a program of the Idaho Conservation League, is to save wild salmon and steelhead, breach the four lower Snake River dams and honor tribal treaties. Rajbhandari said a group of high school members have visited more than a dozen schools in the Treasure Valley since they began last summer.

As part of the group's effort to educate and include youth of all ages, high school members go into schools in the Treasure Valley either at the request of or with approval from teachers to give presentations about the problem, and share with the students what they can do. Their message: "Your voice starts now, here in elementary school," Rajbhandari said.


At the beginning of the presentation to Sonia Galaviz's fifth grade class, Rajbhandari asked, "Does anyone know about the salmon issue already?"

Hands immediately shot up, with students excited to share. Throughout the presentation, the fifth grade students remained engaged, asking questions and sharing comments -- sometimes raising their hands so enthusiastically they started jumping up and down -- as they were shown pictures of salmon, dams and orcas.

The presentation touched on several different issues: conservation, climate change and tribal issues. Legarreta said Youth Salmon Protectors wants to involve as many youth as possible, and that can start as early as elementary school.

The students learned about the importance of salmon to the ecosystem and to indigenous people, and the impacts the four lower Snake River dams and climate change have on them.

Salmon and steelhead are born in the headwaters, move to ocean water after they are born and then go back to spawn and die. Nineteen species of salmon and steelhead are on the Endangered Species List.

The Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office released a 2020 report that found some species of salmon "remain on the brink of extinction." It pointed to climate change and human-made structures, such as dams, as contributing factors. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council said dams impact salmon and steelhead in several ways, such as "inundating spawning areas to changing historic river flow patterns and raising water temperatures."

"Although regulation from federal and state governments has kept Idaho's iconic fish from going extinct so far, salmon and steelhead populations are collapsing and have declined substantially since the development of dams on the lower Snake River," the Idaho Conservation League said on its website. "Upstream, Idahoans have protected and restored some of the best habitat for salmon and steelhead anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the fish are having trouble getting to it."

At the end of the presentation, the fifth grade students had a quick round of trivia, and earned T-shirts and stickers. They also got postcards, where they were invited to write a message to send to U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo to tell him why saving the salmon was important to them.

Rajbhandari said the group typically has students write letters to politicians whose support is important in breaching the dams, including Crapo, Gov. Brad Little and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Rajbhandari pointed to Crapo's involvement in the Owyhee Initiative, an agreement that helped protect acres of wilderness.

"We know (Crapo) understands why conservation is important to so many of his constituents," Rajbhandari said in a message.

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, who represents Eastern Idaho, last year proposed removing the four lower Snake River dams to save salmon as part of President Joe Biden's infrastructure package. Crapo had expressed skepticism then of the plan.

"Achieving a durable, successful plan regarding the anadromous fish issues in the lower Snake River must be the result of a collaborative process with stakeholder buy-in from all sides," Crapo said in a statement to the Statesman.

The students listed different reasons they cared about the salmon. Tinsley McQueen, a fifth grade student in the class, wrote about orcas.

"I care about the salmon because they are important to the ecosystem, and the orcas are not breeding because they eat the salmon and there's not enough," 10-year-old Tinsley wrote.


Legarreta said it was great to see the fifth grade students so engaged throughout the presentation.

"I think it's really cool when we go to elementary schools and talk to these kids, and they're as well-informed about this issue (as) these kids here today," she told the Statesman. "And it shows how important our education is, especially to these young kids."

Rajbhandari said he hopes the presentations shows younger kids have power to take action.

"This is something that kids across the Northwest need to know," he said. "As young people … we do have the power to do something about it."

Members of Youth Salmon Protectors raise awareness of threats to salmon in a variety of ways, such as holding meetings, writing postcards, making banners and protesting to push for more action. A lot of students end up getting involved in some way after hearing about the issue, Rajbhandari said.

After the students played a few games of salmon tag following the presentation, Legarreta and Rajbhandari added in one more element: youth salmon protectors.

A few fifth graders put on large cardboard cutouts of salmon and played the protectors. Those students could tag and save salmon that got eliminated by the sun. Unlike the first round, many more salmon were left swimming around by the end of the game.

"With the incorporation of the solution -- the salmon protectors -- they see how much of an impact they can have, and that we can have on this issue," Legarreta said.

Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman in partnership with Report for America. The position is partly funded through community support.
Boise High School Students Want to Save the Salmon. So They're Educating Idaho Youth
Idaho Statesman, March 15, 2022

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