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Rancher Calls for Snake Dam Removal

by Greg Stahl, Express Staff Writer
Idaho Mountain Express, March 25, 2005

Agriculture community could suffer because of salmon flow augmentation

One of Idaho's life-long ranchers and long-time politicians said this week that arguments pervading Idaho's salmon and water debates are missing their mark.

"Farmers are supporting policy that's going to put them out of business, this flushing of water," said former Idaho Sen. John Peavey, a Carey sheep rancher. "It will devastate the economy of Southern Idaho."

The debate needs to center again on removal of the four dams on the Lower Snake River, Peavey said.

"As far as Idaho's salmon are concerned, the four Washington state dams are the problem," he wrote in a letter distributed to Idaho newspapers this week. "History will not judge us kindly if we lose our farmers and our small towns, ruin the state's economy and lose the salmon, too. But I am afraid that is where we are headed."

Specifically, Peavey is concerned about an ongoing proposal to use Idaho water to help flush migrating salmon smolts through the slack water of reservoirs on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers. It is one of a myriad of methods the Bush administration called on in a new salmon recovery plan, released last fall.

"The solution to the salmon problem and our water woes is obvious—take the Lower Snake dams down. If we do this, we can save Idaho's salmon, and there will be no need for 'flush' water from southern Idaho or Dworshak Reservoir," Peavey wrote. "Take the dams down, and we can build Idaho's salmon fishing economy and save farms in southern Idaho."

Peavey's comments coincided with a call from a coalition of salmon-advocacy groups early this week asking a federal judge in Oregon to rule that the Bush administration's $6 million salmon recovery plan violates the Endangered Species Act.

The coalition—which includes Idaho Rivers United and Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited, anglers, Indian tribes and businesses—filed for an injunction with U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland.

Redden rejected the government's previous plan for restoring the fish in 2003, and sent it back to the Bush administration for a rewrite.

The coalition argues the administration's new plan, released in November, does less for salmon recovery than the previous proposal. They say the new plan is based on the fallacy that dams on the lower Snake and Columbia rivers are part of the natural river environment.

"No single factor has done as much damage to Idaho salmon runs as dams on the Lower Snake River," said retired Idaho Department Fish and Game biologist Bert Bowler, who now works for Idaho Rivers United.

The groups in the coalition hope Redden will rule by June 1 that the new plan is illegal and then issue an order implementing temporary recovery measures. Specifically, they asked for: a water velocity increase of 10 percent in the Snake and Columbia rivers, an increase of water over dam spillways and reinstitution of protection programs outlined in the 2000 salmon recovery plan, which the groups previously and successfully asked Redden to repeal.

"With snowpack levels down this year, migrating salmon will need all the help they can get to survive," Bowler said. "In 2001, when the region experienced similar drought conditions, we saw one of the deadliest migrations in recent history. We've seen the impact of those bad conditions in declining wild salmon returns over the last four decades."

Peavey, who ran sheep in the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River for more than 30 years, agreed. As he grazed sheep along the near-pristine chinook salmon spawning habitat of Marsh Creek, he watched fewer and fewer salmon return as dams were constructed hundreds of miles down river.

"It was amazing," he remembered of the large old chinooks swimming into the small stream, just north of the Sawtooth Mountains. "When you spotted them, they looked like torpedoes coming up at you. I remember lying on the bank over a deep pool where the bank hung out over. We'd hang over up to about here." He drew his hand across the chest area of his faded Carhartt jacket.

"You'd see 'em in there, about this long." He spread his arms about three feet apart.

"You could reach in and brush your hand along its back.

"But as time went on, they added more and more dams, and by the `70s, the fish were pretty much on their way out."

Then the public land managers attacked grazing and closed the majority of the grazing allotments in the meadows around Marsh Creek, Peavey said. He said the government missed the mark when it restricted grazing to facilitate salmon recovery, and animosity among the state's agricultural communities has resulted.

"Grazing had been going on for about a half a century when I got started. There was lots of grazing and lots of fish, so the federal policies in the beginning taught people not to like the fish," Peavey said.

Idaho's economy would not be the only beneficiary of improved salmon runs, said Stanley-based river outfitter Brent Estep, who owns Mackay Wilderness River Trips.

"Restoring salmon and steelhead fishing would have a tremendous impact on Idaho's tourism industry," Estep said. "Investing in restoration is a no-brainer. But until we build the political will to remove the Lower Snake dams, salmon advocates must do what they need to do, including turning to the courts, to keep this precious resource from sliding backward."

A study released earlier this year by economist Don Reading of Ben Johnson Associates showed that a fully restored salmon and steelhead fishery in Idaho could result in a $544 million economic boost to the state. Much of the benefit would occur in rural communities along the Salmon and Clearwater rivers.

But for Peavey, the solution will have to start with getting support from Idaho's farmers, who he said have been taught through the last 40 years by the power structure in Idaho to hate fish.

"It's a tragedy that farmers down there, where the political power lies, don't see the problem," Peavey said. "This is an issue that would turn politics in Idaho on its tail. But it hasn't because it's been taken off the table."

Greg Stahl, Express Staff Writer
Rancher Calls for Snake Dam Removal
Idaho Mountain Express - March 25, 2005

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