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A Ninth Dam Called Politics

Scott Bosse, Idaho Rivers United
Opinion in Wood River Journal - September 29, 1999

When Governor Kempthorne waded into Redfish Lake recently to help release a group of captive-bred sockeye salmon into the wild, he clearly wanted to send Idahoans the message that he cares deeply about salmon.

To further drive that message home to the skeptics among us who judge politicians by their deeds rather than their platitudes, the governor announced the creation of a new state level salmon cabinet consisting almost entirely of -- you guessed it -- political operatives.

When all the buckets were poured and the scarlet-colored fish swam free to the clicking of photographers' cameras, Governor Kempthorne remarked, "There's something spiritual about this. This is exactly what nature intended."

Anyone who has witnessed the courtship dance of the sockeye will attest that it is indeed a deeply moving, if not spititual, event. Especially when one pauses to consider the grueling 1000-mile long, 7000-foot climb these fish must complete in order to reach the waters of their birth to spawn and then die.

But was it really nature's intention that we destroy the very river upon which these fish depend for survival by plugging it with a chain of four 100-foot-high dams? Was it nature's intention to drive these fish to such low levels that we now have to capture every last one and imprison them in a captive breeding program in order to preserve the last strands of DNA in the gene pool? Was it nature's plan to have hatchery technicians club these fish over the head and spawn them in plastic buckets?

Only seven sockeye salmon returned to Idaho this year. For most Idahoans who never knew the days when tens of thousands of sockeye returned to the Stanley basin every summer, that was reason to celebrate. After all, it was the second best return this decade after the boom of '93 when 12 fish made it back. But I doubt most Idahoans are happy about a program that costs nearly $2 million per year and produces only seven fish. Each sockeye that returned this year cost over a quarter million dollars.

Clearly, the status quo is not good enough. As Paul Kline, the IDFG biologist who heads the captive breeding program, said last week, "It's going to take a lot more to restore sockeye salmon to Idaho."

Made-for-Hollywood photo-ops at Redfish Lake won't cut it. If the governor is truly sincere about bringing salmon back, he should direct his new salmon cabinet to stop selling snake oil to the public in the form of "fish-friendly" turbines, strobe lights and fish pipelines, and start heeding the nearly-unanimous advice of the scientific community.

As much as it may pain our governor, the vast majority of biologists say the only way to keep salmon in Idaho is to bypass those four dams on the lower Snake River. Any recovery plan that ignores that amounts to pouring very expensive water into a bottomless bucket. The Idaho Fish and Game has known this for decades. But Governor Kempthorne and Idaho's congressional delegation, all of whom have made their careers advocating for state's rights, have mysterioiusly turned a deaf ear to their own state professionals and instead embraced the very federal agencies that got us into this mess in the first place.

It's true that there are lots of factors that have driven Idaho's salmon to extinction's edge over the past century. But the biggest factor by far is our elected leaders' collective lack of courage to save them, Governor Andrus notwithstanding. Idaho's salmon have a hard enough time surviving eight dams between Lewiston and the ocean. But now there's a ninth dam. It's called politics, and it is perhaps the most lethal one of all.

Scott Bosse, Conservation Scientist, Idaho Rivers United
A Ninth Dam Called Politics
Guest Opinion in Wood River Journal September 29, 1999

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