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Feds' Salmon Plan Omits Dam Breaching -- For Now

by Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman, July 20, 2000

Agencies will rely on other action to save fish

Bob Schloss, an Idaho Fish & Game biologist with the Clearwater Fish Hatchery, injects antibiotics into a chinook salmon retrieved from a trap on the Crooked River in Central Idaho Federal officials said they will delay until 2008 the long-awaited decision on whether to breach four Snake River dams to save Idaho's salmon.

In the meantime, a plan for a comprehensive suite of recovery measures to save 12 runs of endangered salmon in the Columbia River Basin is expected to be announced next week.

To keep Idaho's Snake River's runs from going extinct while they assess the dams, federal officials would expand a captive breeding program that supplements wild populations with fish raised in hatcheries.

Clinton administration officials have been saying since late last year that they would not immediately recommend breaching the four dams in Washington but neither would they take the drastic measure off the table. But in the strongest statement to date Wednesday, they confirmed their policy and laid out the timetable for a future decision.

Salmon like this Chinook, produced from the Clearwater Fish Hatchery, are stocked in rivers for anglers to harvest but are now receiving more attention in their role to supplement wild salmon populations and help keep Snake River salmon runs from extinction.  Federal officieals plan to expand captive breeding programs while the debate continues over breaching four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River. The decision disappointed environmentalists but pleased Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who is working with the governors of Oregon, Washington and Montana on their own plan for restoring salmon.

"The soonest you'll have full discussion on breaching dams is 10 years," Kempthorne said. That's why I want to move forward aggressively on all four H's -- harvest, hatchery, hydro-power and habitat."

Salmon are a living icon of the wild character of the Pacific Northwest that provide economic benefits to fishing-related businesses and spiritual sustenance to the region's Indians. The four dams in Washington allow barges to travel from Lewiston to the Pacific and produce 5 percent of the region's electricity, enough to power a city the size of Seattle.

The comprehensive plan calls for major changes in farming, logging and building practices throughout the Columbia basin to improve water quality and salmon spawning habitat. It also calls for increased river flows and changes in dam operations that could add to the cost of electricity.

Will Stelle, National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Northwest director, outlined the federal decision Wednesday in a telephone press conference. He and eight other federal agencies plan to release details of the comprehensive salmon restoration plan for the Columbia River basin July 27.

The fisheries service also will release its draft biological opinion on operations of the federal hydroelectric power system. The opinion, required under the federal Endangered Species Act, guides the operation of federal dams throughout the Pacific Northwest.

The biological opinion will include a set of performance standards to measure salmon recovery efforts. After eight years, if the wild salmon populations continue on the downward slide, then federal officials would recommend to Congress that the four dams should be breached, Stelle said.

Those standards include:

The precise targets will be released in the biological opinion. Stelle did not say how much water will be required from Idaho to meet flow targets.

Idaho political leaders have stood together in opposition to both breaching dams and augmenting river flows with water from Idaho reservoirs such as Lucky Peak.

"It would be foolish in the extreme to limit the tools in our recovery toolbox to the narrow choice of breaching or flow augmentation," said Steve Johnson, a spokesman for Idaho United for Fish and Water, an industry group formed to oppose breaching and the taking of additional water.

Most federal, state, tribal and independent biologists say breaching the four dams is the best way to save Snake River salmon and steelhead. Many of these same scientists say the fish will become extinct if the dams aren't breached. But the National Marine Fisheries Service has pinned much of its restoration hopes on habitat improvement programs.

But because most of the spawning habitat in Idaho is located in wilderness or other federally protected areas, the habitat is generally in the best condition of the entire region.

To make up for delaying the decision on the dams, the fisheries service will rely on expanding the program of supplementing wild salmon with fish raised in hatcheries.

In this procedure, biologists collect the eggs and sperm of wild salmon adults, hatch the eggs and raise the fish to fingerlings. They release them into the river where they were collected in the spring. When the salmon return, they are allowed to spawn naturally.

The practice is strongly advocated by the Nez Perce and other Columbia River tribes. Kempthorne said the state also supports it but wants to allow wild fish to remain undisturbed in certain watersheds such as the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.

Geneticists say any time salmon are taken from the wild and raised part of their life in hatcheries, they lose some of their ability to survive in the wild. Past programs have had mixed results.

But with dam breaching delayed, and salmon populations on a serious downward spiral, geneticist Rick Williams of Meridian said it might be necessary.

"I would say it's probably the most reasonable thing to do to buy us time," he said.

Scott Bosse, conservation biologist for Idaho Rivers United said the decision to delay breaching will mean some Snake River salmon runs will likely go extinct.

"To punt on dam removal is a decision to sacrifice Snake River salmon on the alter of presidential politics," Bosse said.

Vice President Al Gore, the presumed Democratic nominee for President, has stopped short of endorsing breaching. Instead, he's calling for a salmon summit after the election to revisit the issue.

Texas Gov. Bush, the certain Republican nominee, Wednesday pushed Gore to take a firm position.

"Al Gore should take a stand," Bush said in a statement. "I say we can use technology to save the salmon, without leaving the door open to destroying these dams."

Salmon: The Plan

Did the Clinton administration decide not to breach dams?

No. The decision on the four federal dams on the Snake would be delayed until 2008, but engineering studies and development of a program to offset the economic losses if dams are breached would go forward.

What is the Clinton administration planning to do for salmon?

Federal agencies say to restore salmon they need to improve their survival throughout their vast habitat and life cycle.

They break this down to four "H's": hydroelectric, habitat, harvest and hatchery. The federal strategy will emphasize measures that help all 12 of the salmon and steelhead stocks that are endangered in the Columbia River system.

That means more attention will be paid to the dams on the Columbia that all the salmon must pass to survive. Modifications will be made and operations changed to attempt to improve survival. Increasing flows, which could mean using more water from Idaho reservoirs, is part of the program.

Other efforts will be made to improve conditions in the Columbia river estuary, the mixing zone between the river and the ocean at its mouth.

Habitat improvement programs will be conducted throughout the basin and efforts to improve water quality and lower water temperatures will be made by enforcing the Clean Water Act.

What's next?

The National Marine Fisheries Service will release a draft biological opinion on operations of the federal Columbia River hydroelectric system next Thursday. The document is the agency's opinion on whether the dams jeopardize the survival of 12 different endangered runs of wild salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

NMFS and eight other federal agencies also will release their Basinwide Salmon Restoration Plan, which offers a comprehensive blueprint for keeping 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River from going extinct.

Salmon: Q & A

Questions and answers about salmon

How did salmon numbers fall from their historic high of 8 million to 16 million to fewer than 1 million in the 1990s?

Nearly all scientists agree that relentless commercial fishing of salmon stocks from 1866 to 1930 dramatically reduced the number of salmon and the diversity of salmon species in the Columbia River Basin. The building of dams and the replacement of natural runs with hatchery fish further reduced the diversity of the salmon. Salmon spawning habitat was cut off by the dams, destroyed by development, grazing, logging and mining, or polluted.

If Snake River salmon numbers were sustaining themselves in the 1960s, why aren't they now?

Scientists on both sides of the issue agree that the building of the four dams on the Snake River and the last dam on the Columbia River in the 1960s and '70s coincided with a huge decline in productivity.

Both sides agree that dams killed salmon both at the dams and afterward in the Columbia River estuary and the ocean, because of stress or other factors. They also agree that the extra mortality is higher in Snake River salmon than in Columbia River salmon.

Both sides agree that a downturn in ocean conditions, which reduced salmon productivity, occurred since the mid-1970s.

Both sides agree that salmon that spawn in lower Columbia River tributaries and the river itself return to spawn at higher rates than do those that spawn in the Snake River.

What's the major disagreement?

Scientists don't agree on why more Snake River salmon die in the estuary and ocean than lower Columbia River salmon.

What is the majority opinion?

State, tribal, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists say that the four Snake River dams and the barging and fish bypass systems are responsible for the extra mortality.

They say the difference in return rates between lower Columbia and Snake River salmon is evidence that the four extra dams on the Snake are the limiting factor for Idaho's salmon. Both the Columbia and Snake River salmon and steelhead must face the same estuary and ocean threats, such as fish-eating birds and ocean predators.

And they all suffer the same effects of hatcheries, habitat destruction and harvests. Therefore, the delayed effects of barging and the cumulative effects of migrating past the extra four dams are the only major differences and are responsible for the extra mortality of Snake River salmon. To show that barging works, the data must show that barged salmon survive in the ocean as well as or better than those that migrate in the river, and that the extra mortality is not due to the dams.

These scientists conclude that breaching the dams is the best and perhaps only way to restore the productivity of Snake River runs.

What is the minority opinion?

Scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration say the system they developed to collect and barge salmon around the dams has offset the downstream migration problems that caused salmon to decline when the dams were completed. Since their research shows up to 98 percent of the salmon barged past the dams survive to the estuary, the extra mortality in Snake River fish is due to some other, unknown factor.

It could be competition from hatchery fish, habitat degradation, genetic effects or degraded ocean conditions that affect Snake River fish differently than they affect the lower Columbia salmon.

If new research shows few of the barged fish die as a result of their trip through the dams, the advantages of dam breaching are not so compelling, because it would suggest something else is affecting Snake River fish more than the four dams.

These scientists say that reductions in hatchery fish releases, predator control, additional harvest reductions, stricter habitat restrictions, improving dam passage survival and increasing flows by releasing more water from Idaho reservoirs can restore salmon productivity enough with the dams in place, especially now that ocean conditions have improved.

So why are the salmon in trouble with so many returning to Idaho this year?

The fish returning are mostly hatchery-raised and don't spawn in the wild. The fish that are protected are those that spawn in rivers and lakes.

Salmon: The Players

Agencies and their role in the salmon debate:

Rocky Barker
Feds' Salmon Plan Omits Dam Breaching -- For Now
The Idaho Statesman, July 20, 2000

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