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Saving Idaho's Fish

by J. Robb Brady
Our View, Idaho Falls Post Register, March 19, 2003

Sen. Mike Crapo is working to get $20 million a year toward rebuilding salmon habitat in Idaho. Good for him. Idaho deserves a share of the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund.

But as well-intentioned as Crapo's efforts are, it may mean little progress for the endangered fish.

Idaho's past requests for a share of the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund have been resisted on the grounds that Idaho is not a coastal state. Idaho argued the fish didn't respect that distinction because they begin and end their life journeys in Idaho's rivers and streams.

The members of that coalition -Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington - didn't want to share funds with Idaho. Last year, they split up $100 million.

Crapo's solution was to increase the total size of the pie so that Idaho's slice didn't come at another state's expense. A member of the Senate Budget Committee, Crapo got the committee to endorse a $60 million increase in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration budget - including a third of that for Idaho salmon habitat work.

That's no guarantee. The entire Senate must concur with Crapo's measure and then follow the blueprint when it draws up spending bills. But it's a step forward.

Habitat is only a part of the solution, however. Indeed, in Idaho there are many streams with good habitat and spawning beds, but no wild fish to fill them.

Dams in Washington - not habitat in Idaho - have decimated fish runs. The Columbia River dams will undoubtedly stay as they are - although private power companies and the Bonneville Power Administration need to adjust flows to help migration runs.

But it's a choice between keeping four dams on the Lower Snake River or saving Idaho's salmon runs. Most fish biologists believe breaching those dams and returning the Lower Snake River to a natural flow will help the fish.

Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and the Idaho Legislature muzzled those biologists, choosing instead to put Lewiston's highly subsidized commercial barging industry ahead of the fish.

The Bush administration has promised to spare the fish from extinction through other means. Unfortunately, the administration hasn't followed through on 70 percent of its own plan. Here's a report card delivered by conservationists, sport fishing groups and biologists:

  • The federal government has completed less than 15 percent of the clean water improvements required in the Bush plan. Increased reservoir temperatures and dissolved gases caused by operating federal dams were not addressed.

  • Federal agencies completed less than a third of the dam passage improvement measures required under the plan. That leaves barging and trucking young salmon around the dams - a process that has not shown much success in helping fish return to spawn in the numbers needed.

  • Federal agencies completed just 25 percent of the measures required to enhance spawning and rearing habitats.

  • The federal government completed only 6 percent of the required hatchery and harvest measures.

  • Last year, the Bush administration sought only half of the estimated $900 million per year needed to make its plan work. Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, also dodged the dam breaching vs. fish choice, but at least Clinton funded his plan to fund habitat restoration.

    Indeed, Bush's best score was 40 percent - for completing paperwork on planning and recovery on time.

    So give Crapo credit by trying to get more money into Idaho recovery projections. But ultimately, the best fish recovery project would involve using the best science available, and that means restoring the natural flow of the lower Snake River.

    by J. Robb Brady with Editorial board: Roger Plothow, publisher; Marty Trillhaase; and Dean Miller. Saving Idaho's Fish
    Post Register, March 19, 2003

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