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High Noon for Idaho's Salmon

Ted Chu
Idaho Mountain Express - February 23, 2000

It was June 15, 1973, one of those mornings complete with swirling snow flurries alternating with freezing rain which reminds you a wintry day can occur in any month in the Idaho mountains.

As I stood ready to climb the fishing rock at Deadman Hole on the Salmon River, a man in coveralls, who my memory tells me was in his mid 60s, gingerly made his way down off the rock. I asked if he was giving up. He assured me he wasn't but that the cold and wet weather was making his arthritis unbearable so he was going to his truck to warm up.. He promised to be back and wished me luck.

I took a position on the rock and entered into the casting rotation with anglers already there. It was my first attempt at salmon fishing. Friends in Challis had provided me with proper gear and instruction, however I knew the liklihood of my hooking a fish was extremely low and I was prepared to spend several days paying my dues before earning a salmon.

But classic beginners luck struck within no more than 20 minutes when one of my jerks on the rod was met by an incredibly powerful pull in response. I yelled "fish on" and immediately the other fishermen scrambled to get their lines in and out of the way as they cheered me on and offered advice on how to play the fish.

I gradually worked my way to the downstream end of the rock as the fish tired and was eventually netted by a man standing waist deep in the snowmelt river.

As I started down off the rock to claim my fish I was amazed to note that the netter was not wearing boots or waders. He emerged dripping from the river with my 35 inch fish which was immediately removed from the net by another angler who insisted on field dressing it. My first salmon and before I could even touch it, there it was, cleaned and hanging from a willow! My luck continued and the next day I hooked and landed another fish.

I fished for salmon a few more times without success. As a conservatioin officer and later biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (now retired) my attention turned to enforcing the fishing regulations and, as the runs plummeted, to enforcing fishing closures. It is not mere coincidence that the last of the four dams on the Lower Snake was completed in 1975 and the final full salmon season on the Upper Salmon River was in 1974 followed by three closed years.

An abbreviated token season was authorized in 1978, fishing then closing permanently immediately after the last of the fish that did not have to negotiate all eight dams in the system on their downstream migration had returned home.

My strongest memories are of the incredible excitement generated by these magnificent fish and the lengths to which people will go to catch one.

My strongest memories are of the incredible excitement generated by these magnificent fish and the lengths to which people will go to catch one. Some of my saddest memories are of tense standoffs with Nez Perce anglers at Rapid River Hatchery near Riggins when the agencies believed that even their token fishery was too much for the remnant runs to withstand. The real enemies of the fish, both structural and political (financial), were, of course, many miles downsream (or uptown).

Those enemies have almost won this war; a war of attrition of both salmon and the people who knew them. Today there are only a handful of people under the age of 50 and essentially none under the age of 40 who have caught a wild Idaho salmon. A generation of parents and grandparents have lost the opportunity to take a generation of children salmon fishing on the Salmon River. And salmon are not just for anglers. They are also for us simply to marvel at, for bears and eagles to eat, and or recycling nutrients into cold, sterile environments.

The forces that stalled the funding of mitigation hatcheries, stalled modifiying dams, stalled, stalled and are still stalling can smell victory. Soon the great fish, which are nothing but a nuisance to them, will be gone forever. Which nuisance will be next? Steelhead? Sturgeon? Cutthroat?

Then the first encouraging news about salmon in 30 years. A man from Boise, Reed Burkholder, has the billiant audacity to suggest that an objective look should be taken at retiring the four dams on the lower Snake River. He and others back up his assertion with a snowballing of economic facts and fish science that demand attention.

How did the stallers react? They embaced with new vigor all the failed strategies of the past, came up wih some new more bizarre tecno fixes, and quickly developed some new scapegoats, most notabley a tern colony. How can a tern colony at the mouth of the Columbia River be destroying Idaho's salmon when almost none of our smolts even make it that far down river?

Idaho politicians Kempthorne, Craig and Chenoweth-Hage quickly sought to calm us, their subjects, by saying in so many words that the whole idea was so ridiculous that we shouldn't worry or collecetive pretty little heads about it or waste our time even talking or thinking about it. How demeaning!

The Idaho Legislature went apoplectic when biologists, some employed by the Fish and Game Deaprtment, but acting as independent scientists, signed a petition to the President recommending the dams be bypassed for fish. As a chilling commentary regarding the state of free speech in today's one-party Idaho, the legislature then denied the agency a much needed fee increase as punishment. Politicians across the northwest, rushed to ridicule the idea and initiate actions to block any attempts to alter the dams. This before allowing the public an opportunity to even review the evidence and make their wishes known!

Now the public has that opportunity. The US Army Corps of Engineers is currently hosting public meetings seeking comment on alternatives for improving downstream migration conditions for juvenile salmon (steelhead would be affected similarly). Only one of the alternatives presented is given any real hope of restoring runs. That is alternative four: breaching the four dams on the Lower Snake River. The other alternatives suggest that at best they might prevent total extinction of Idaho salmon. If ever there was a time to act for these fish that time is now.

The benefit versus cost of these four dams should be re-evaluated. Breaching them will produce some short-term economic hardships (as well as some substantial benefits), which should be dealt with generously and compassionately.

Since shipping by barge is currently subsidized, there is no reason why shipping by land couldn't be. Funding all aspects of breaching will be less expensive in the long run than continuing to fund, at approximately one billion dollars a year, current failing efforts at salmon recovery.

Building the dams also caused economic hardships, which were not mitigated for or subsidized. A small but graphic example can be seen along Highway 28 which follows the Lemhi River -- a now abandoned motel on the west side of the road with a salmon on its sign -- built to cater to salmon anglers years ago.

Optimistic projections concede that court challenges, red tape, and renewed stalling may delay the start of dam breaching for up to 10 years after approval. This provides ample time to develop and prove new solutions at which point the procss could be halted. However, waiting any longer to start that process is inexcusable and probably fatal to the fish. And, if contrary to all predictions, breaching should fail to recover the fish, the earthen portions of the dams can always be replaced, serving as symbolic tombstones for the lost runs.

Every good story has a good ending. The man who struggled to the bank through the icy water (without boots or waders) with my salmon in his net? He was the same arthritis sufferer mentioned earlier! And I believe the fellow who dressed my fish for me simply wanted to get his hands on a slamon and go through the ritual. I rewarded each with a skein of eggs from my fish only to be scolded later by my friends for being overly generous! I only hope they put them to good use as bait and caught fish, too.

As a biologist and once salmon fisherman, I agree with 95 percent of the region's scientists that breaching the dams is the only hope we have of restoring such scenes to the Salmon River and preserving the river's right to its name.

Ted Chu
High Noon for Idaho's Salmon
Idaho Mountain Express February 23, 2000

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