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Saga Over Endangered Fish has
Plot of an Old Western Movie

by Roger Phillips
Idaho Statesman, August 9, 2009

There's fixin' to be a showdown over how the feds manage salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake rivers, and it could shape the future of Idaho's fish.

I've been watching the saga like an old Western movie because it has so much melodrama and so many plot twists.

U.S. District Judge James Redden, who's been the black robe overseeing the salmon and dams debate for two decades, has given the Obama administration until Aug. 14 to decide whether it wants to stay the course on salmon and dams; modify the existing "biological opinion," which is the overall management plan; or create a plan of its own.

Redden has hinted he's not too keen on the plan put forth by the Bush administration, which favors the status quo and considered Snake River dams as "part of the landscape."

Like three old retired sheriffs strapping on their guns once again, former governors of Idaho, Oregon and Washington recently sent President Obama aletter encouraging him to reject the Bush plan.

"We believe your leadership now provides an opportunity to bring fishermen, farmers, energy users and communities together to make real progress on this issue after long years of contention," wrote Cecil Andrus of Idaho, John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Mike Lowry of Washington.

Whatever plan is presented, it's going to face an OK Corral of controversy.

Like any good Western, this one keeps sucking you in, but if you haven't followed the plot from the beginning, it gets confusing.

So here's a quick refresher:

The whole thing is crazy. That's the best way to sum it up, sort of like John Wayne meets "Blazing Saddles."

Some folks think the best option for endangered salmon and steelhead is to breach the four lower Snake River dams.

They consider dams the dark villain, but dam breachers are like the troubled heroine waiting for the hero to arrive, and it's probably not going to happen any time soon.

On the Klamath River in Oregon and California, the states, feds, Indian tribes and a power company agreed to remove four dams, and even pledged money to do it, but 2020 is the target date for breaching to start.

Snake River dams have loyal and powerful advocates fighting on their behalf, including farmers, power companies and shippers.

They're going to guard the dams like the Alamo. (OK, maybe that's a bad analogy considering how that one ended.)

The role of the gambler in this saga is played by hatcheries, which can be good or evil, depending on how you look at them.

Hatchery fish are what anglers get to catch and keep, and without them we wouldn't have any salmon and steelhead fishing in Idaho.

Hatcheries have saved Idaho's sockeye salmon.

In 1992, Lonesome Larry was the only sockeye salmon that returned to Idaho, and if it wasn't for hatcheries the species would be extinct here.

While some people see hatcheries as saviors, others see them as temporary solution. Scientists tend to agree with the latter.

A panel of government and tribal biologists reviewing the Columbia/Snake hatchery system recently said, "The traditional practice of replacing natural populations with hatchery fish to mitigate for habitat loss and mortality due to hydroelectric dams is not consistent with today's conservation principles and scientific knowledge.

"Hatchery fish cannot replace lost habitat or the natural populations that rely on that habitat."

To complicate the plot, this year's sockeye return is the biggest since 1991, and last year's sockeye run wasn't much smaller.

Chinook have been schizophrenic. About half of Idaho's spring chinook returns went missing in action for a second straight year, but fall chinook came rolling in behind them like a thunderstorm, which could happen again this year.

Despite that, the trend of our wild salmon and steelhead populations is troubling. All have been on the endangered species list for more than a decade. Sockeye were listed in 1991, chinook in 1993 and steelhead in 1998.

Since then, we've had a few good - but mostly mediocre - returns. None of the wild fish have come close to meeting the federal guidelines for recovery.

To add one more subplot, the Nez Perce Tribe has become an important advocate for salmon and steelhead.

Idaho coho were declared extinct in 1985, but the Nez Perce Tribe is resurrecting them through its hatchery program.

The tribe brought back 3,400 adult coho to Idaho last year.

It's ironic considering three times more coho than sockeye returned to Idaho, and sockeye are celebrated as a rare bright spot in the salmon world while the success of coho is largely ignored.

So there you have it - the Idaho salmon situation as clear as a muddy river on a moonless night.

Be sure to stay tuned because this cowpoke soap opera has a long way to go before the cowboy rides into the sunset.

Related Sites:
Letter from Ex-Governors
Salmon Solutions and Planning Act of 2009

Roger Phillips
Saga Over Endangered Fish has Plot of an Old Western Movie
Idaho Statesman, August 9, 2009

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