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Uncovering the Salmon Nation

by Greg Stahl
Sun Valley Guide, Summer 2005

At the environmental and cultural heart of Idaho is a fish struggling to survive

Lower Granite Dam impounds Snake River waters nearly forty miles to the Idaho border. At a remote section of the South Fork of the Salmon River, chinook salmon leap from frothy waters into a pouring cascade. The volume streaming over a pair of five-foot ledges is heavy, and the odds of a fish making it to the relative calm of the water above seem unlikely.

But they make it.

Salmon after salmon flaps into the pouring water and wiggles onward toward the gravel of its birth, where the fish will attempt to spawn and continue the species' struggle for survival.

Just several miles upstream, Native American anglers patiently wait for the darting shadow of a giant fish. They stand, as their ancestors did, with 30-foot-long gaff poles and spears in hand. Fishing for salmon is a time-honored tradition that has been part of native culture in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years.

"Salmon are sacred," says Elmer Crow, 61, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe and one of the tribe's fisheries biologists. "To us, salmon pretty much is sacred because when everything was being created, when people was created, there was nothing to eat. Salmon is one of the ones who volunteered: 'I will sacrifice myself so these people can be fed.' The salmon has two purposes in life: One is to reproduce; one is to feed the people."

The great Pacific salmon that continue to return to Central Idaho each year aren't just one of the region's signature species. They're a way of life, a culture that is fading as the magnificent fish teeter on the brink of extinction.

Idaho is a place where salmon have left a distinct cultural and biological stamp on the people and the land. The impression is indelible in the state's history, people, biology and nomenclature.

The native Lemhi-Shoshone Indians called themselves Agaidika, meaning "salmon eaters." Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains won its name from the glow 25,000 shimmering sockeye salmon created when they returned each fall to the waters of their birth -- some 900 miles from the wide, blue Pacific Ocean. The serpentine Salmon River, with its famous whitewater rapids and headwaters, just 20 miles northwest of Sun Valley, was not named coincidentally. Nor was Salmon Creek Falls on the Snake River in southern Idaho. But at Salmon Creek Falls, the big fish have not returned for a century, an irony many hope does not befall the famous Salmon River. Redfish Lake hasn't been transformed into a boiling red spectacle for decades.

Crow remembers the days of his youth, when he watched his father fish the waters of Bear Valley and the Yankee Fork, both near Stanley in Central Idaho.

"There was salmon all over the place," he says. "They were huge fish. Oh, how do you describe it?"

He pauses before continuing.

"Black. You see a sandy bottom. You know it's all sand, and when you walk up on it, you see very few patches of sand because there are so many salmon in there."

As settlers made the West more comfortable, salmon suffered, and today the fish returning to the Salmon River basin in Idaho are at a fraction of their historic numbers. But with help from state and tribal hatcheries, they do still come, and the species' continued survival is a success story for people who have cheered them on. For those who view the barely sustainable populations as recoverable, it's a failure, too. They see opportunity slipping through their fingers.

"The Salmon River is what all of the Salmon Nation -- the waters that are home to the Salmon people up and down the Pacific Northwest coast -- ought to look like," says Mark Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe at Fort Hall, Idaho and a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist. "It's not complicated. Salmon need cool, clean water for habitat."

There's only one problem, Trahant says.

"Send fish."

Before settlers arrived in the West, their diseases spread ahead of them, killing an estimated 90 percent of the native people. Salmon populations were probably at their peak as harvest pressures receded, but salmon runs were not always bountiful.

At the end of the last ice age, some 10,000 years ago, glaciers receded leaving nothing but rock and ice. The streams were sterile, but, with time, the ancient salmon reinvigorated them with the verve of their decomposing bodies. At Redfish Lake, which teemed with 20,000 spawning sockeye salmon, about 40 tons of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus were brought from the ocean each year to what was once barren glacial till.

"With time, the salmon would thrive and feed an ecosystem that would rise up around them," says Scott Levy, a Ketchum-based Web librarian who attempts to inform people about the plight of Idaho's wild salmon and steelhead. "Indeed, even the trees were supported by the salmon's nutritional bounty. The increasingly organic forest floor would hold more moisture, which led to more salmon as well as a multitude of plants and animals."

Levy, who became active in the debate over Northwest salmon through production of the film, "Redfish Bluefish" and hosting the Web site,, says the incredible abundance of fish "must have been a wonder."

"To the early settlers it must have seemed to be an infinite resource that had been laid for their consumption," he says. "But within a century, salmon populations would plunge to 20 percent of their abundance."

On a graph of geologic time, they trend like a waterfall pouring over the edge of the 20th century.

In recorded history, populations fell, first as a result of unrestricted fishing. Canneries appeared along the Columbia River in the 1860s, and commercial fishers used seines at the mouth of the Columbia River, the doorway through which countless fish needed to pass to return from the ocean. So many fish were caught that draft horses were used to haul the nets from the water. Fish wheels -- giant water-powered nets that "wheeled" fish in -- were eventually employed, scooping up tens of thousands of fish. But it quickly became evident that salmon were not returning as they once did.

The first hatcheries, in fact, were built to sustain the over-harvest, and now two-thirds of the Columbia River's salmon are reared in tanks and raceways.

The Salmon River basin naturally holds 70 percent of the potential reproductive habitat for salmon in the massive expanse of the Columbia River drainage. Historically, the waters of the Salmon, Middle Fork of the Salmon, South Fork of the Salmon and dozens of tributaries overflowed with anadromous fish -- chinook, sockeye and coho salmon, as well as steelhead trout. Idaho's Snake and Clearwater rivers also hold secrets of historically potent runs.

But times have changed.

Early harvest managers dismantled the fish wheels, and salmon runs stabilized at a sizeable, albeit reduced level. Then came the dream of electricity and the prosperity it might bring to the region. The advent of dams in the 1930s made it harder for young salmon to migrate to the ocean. Those that did return faced new challenges migrating to their spawning grounds. The Columbia and Snake rivers were transformed into a series of lakes that confuse migration instincts and make fish more vulnerable to predators.

Between 1938 and 1975, the federal government built eight large dams downstream from Idaho's Salmon River. Four are on the lower Snake River, and four are on the lower Columbia. In 1938, Bonneville Dam, the first of four large dams built on the lower Columbia River for hydroelectric production, was finished. By 1968, John Day Dam, the fourth, was complete, and the entire lower Columbia from its confluence with the Snake to the Pacific Ocean was stilled.

"Bonneville was an impressive testament to human ability, but the salmon were not impressed," Levy says. "Juvenile salmon on their downstream journey to the ocean would have to pass by spinning turbine blades, the radical pressure changes exploding some to pieces."

But few humans would notice the salmon's plight. Progress and growth of the Northwest were high on their minds.

The new settlers of the Nez Perce region wished for a part of the expansion. Lewiston, Idaho, where Lewis and Clark once camped, was to be the center of a great Inland Empire. If dams and locks could tame the lower Snake, ships could carry wheat and other goods from the region.

For decades, railroads transported goods from the region, but farmers were held captive by the price that the rail operators set. The waterway would create a new source of competition to drive prices down.

"Dams were being built all over the West, so why not on the remote lower Snake of southeastern Washington?" Levy asks. "Decades of lobbying and skillful marketing would bring four dams to the lower Snake River. The great Inland Empire, however, has yet to arrive."

On the lower Snake River, four dams were erected, three of them in rapid succession, in order to convert Lewiston into an inland ocean port. With support from groups like the Inland Empire Waterways Association, the dams received Congressional approval and funding.

As the dams went up, Idaho's once tremendous salmon populations went down.

The Snake River's coho salmon were declared extinct in 1985. In 1991, Idaho's sockeye salmon were found in need of Endangered Species Act protection and listed as endangered. Chinook salmon were similarly listed as threatened in 1992. Rivers that once teemed with fish so thick they bore the appearance of a walkable surface are now nearly empty, and Central Idaho is increasingly bereft of a species and piece of culture that helped shape the region.

Sockeye, which spawn in lakes, always numbered fewer than chinook, which spawn in rivers, because the number of suitable lakes in Idaho is limited. In the decade of the 1990s, a total of 18 sockeye salmon returned to Redfish Lake and the Sawtooth Valley. Chinook salmon, which once returned to Idaho in the hundreds of thousands, now return each year numbering in the tens of thousands.

Last year, President George W. Bush's administration declared the lower Snake dams would stay. According to the administration's ruling, the Endangered Species Act was enacted after the dams were authorized, and the dams are now officially a part of the landscape, a part of the environmental baseline.

But as much as some things change, others stay the same.

Ketchum artist, naturalist and activist Will Caldwell has lived in the Northwest his entire life. The mid 20th century was when watching salmon return to the rivers and streams of his youth was an integral part of growing up in the Northwest.

"I still remember standing there at Celilo Falls, watching the Indians fish and listening to my dad say, 'You know, son, they're going to build a dam, and we're going to lose all of these great fishing holes,'" Caldwell says. "I did witness the building of the dams, and I did see the passing of the Indians fishing there. Incrementally, these things do fade from our culture as the fish become less and less of a resource."

Celio Falls was east of the Dalles on the Columbia.

Ocean-bound salmon, young fish called smolts, have a difficult time migrating around dams, but they have the most trouble traveling through reservoirs. Contrary to conventional beliefs, smolts do not swim downstream; they face upstream and ride river currents toward the ocean. When they hit the slackwater created by reservoirs, their migration grinds to a halt. To survive the reservoirs, smolts must turn west and swim downstream, beginning in Lewiston, where wood, wheat and paper products are loaded onto barges at slackwater ports.

A trip that once took one to three weeks takes young salmon one to three months -- if they make it at all.

Caldwell, who experienced a mid-life change of heart about extractive industries like mining and logging, says he did not initially understand the eventual repercussions dams and reservoirs would cause. He once viewed them as benign symbols of progress.

"People were in love with progress," Caldwell says. "There just wasn't the experience and the information to indicate it was going to be so devastating for the fish."

Scientists estimate the series of eight reservoirs kills 60 to 80 percent of Idaho's young salmon and steelhead as they migrate to the ocean. Of those, 20 percent are killed at the dams themselves, while 40 percent are killed in the slow-moving backwaters.

This is not a new science.

By the late 1940s, after only Bonneville Dam was complete, fishery biologists had already begun re-evaluating their endorsement of fish passage facilities at the structure. The Department of the Interior in 1947 proposed a 10-year moratorium on dam construction on the lower Snake and Columbia to allow biologists enough time to study the needs of fish.

"The department, cognizant of hydropower requirements in the region, claimed the Bonneville Power Administration could obtain necessary electricity from dams constructed elsewhere, in places less vital to fish than the lower Snake," writes Keith C. Petersen in his book, "River of Life, Channel of Death: Fish and Dams on the Lower Snake." "Even so, the Interior Department waffled, concluding that if the lower Snake's power eventually proved essential, the 'salmon run must if necessary be sacrificed.'"

Further, in 1948 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said quite clearly that the dams would hinder continued salmon survival.

"Adequate facilities can be provided for the upstream passage of fish," the service wrote in its 1948 opinion. "The potential loss of downstream-migrating fingerlings presents a more serious problem ... . The lower Snake River dams collectively present the greatest threat to the maintenance of the Columbia River salmon population of any project heretofore constructed or authorized."

Today's debate about the future of salmon is framed in countless ways and by a myriad of people, but the eventual impacts on the fish, even before most of the dams were built, appeared clear. The fight goes on. The salmon advocates struggle with politicians and special interest groups. Idaho's salmon, at the edge of extinction, fight to swim upstream and spawn.

Under the hot sun of a typical August afternoon, the clear cold waters of Marsh Creek tumble north toward the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area. Snows and springs in the towering crags of the Sawtooth Mountains feed the stream, which parallels state Highway 21 for a few miles west of Stanley. As it fetches into a river, Marsh Creek snakes first through dreamlike mountain meadows and then begins to tumble through pine-scented canyons where it joins the Middle Fork.

The Middle Fork flows 100 miles to its confluence with the Salmon River, which eventually joins the Snake, which eventually joins the Columbia, which finally folds into the rolling expanse of the Pacific.

The nearly 900-mile journey migrating salmon make twice in their lives between Marsh Creek and the Pacific Ocean is a miracle of nature. The fact that salmon born in Idaho successfully make the journey in both directions by passing the eight massive dams and long slackwater reservoirs seems unlikely.

But in Marsh Creek, where hatchery programs do not supplement natural processes, salmon often do not return anymore. In 1999, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game had to cancel its annual redd count training because none of the big fish showed up in this near-pristine creek. It was the second time in five years that the important piece of Mother Nature's intricate puzzle didn't fit into place.

John Peavey is a third generation Carey rancher and a former Idaho state Senator. Until the 1970s, he grazed sheep in the meadows around Marsh Creek. He remembers years past when the fish came thick like locusts. "It was amazing," he remembers. "When you spotted them, they looked like a set of 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 says, indicating a line across his faded Carhartt jacket. "You'd see 'em in there, about this long," his hands stretched 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."

That's when public land managers began to curtail grazing in areas that include salmon spawning habitat, like Marsh Creek. The managers missed the mark when they attacked grazing to help the fish, Peavey says.

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

Peavey says there is a definite correlation between fish decline and dam construction. He declines to endorse theories that blame varying ocean conditions, predatory birds or over-grazing for the rapid population slip.

"All those things have been there," he says. "The thing that's different is the dams."

Peavey, like others, is frustrated because the debate about salmon recovery has shifted away from eliminating the dams and toward habitat improvements and artificially improved flows in the river system. A policy that sends water now penned in Idaho down the river to help young salmon smolts make it through the slackwater reservoirs doesn't hold water, he says.

"Farmers are supporting policy that's going to put them out of business, this flushing of water," he says. "It will devastate the economy of Southern Idaho. It's a tragedy that the farmers down there, where the political power lies, don't see the problem."

The added flow of Idaho water, enough to otherwise irrigate 140,000 acres, speeds the current in the deep lower Snake reservoirs by about one-third of a mile per hour. But the debate about flow augmentation is just a recent chapter of a lengthy story pitting modern progress against ecology.

Since salmon were given Endangered Species Act protections, the political battle over the future of the river system and the future of the fish has been fierce and ongoing. Each day politicians, businesses, fish advocates, biologists and Northwest citizens fight for or against the fish, for or against the dams.

It plays out every year in the rivers and creeks of the Salmon Nation.

It plays out in places like the Salmon River basin and the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River.

A female chinook barely clings to life as she lies in the shallow August waters of the Yankee Fork. Here, under towering lodgepole pines and the sky's great roof, is where she was born. Here is where she will die.

Her gills swell as she clings to the final threads of her remarkable life, a journey that has spanned thousands of miles and countless perils. She has overcome her natural predators, diseases and the barbs and nets of men. She has navigated the still waters of eight reservoirs. She has passed through and over eight concrete dams.

And yet here she lies, her eggs embedded in the stream's clean cobbles, weakly clinging to existence, her body falling apart with the scars of her quest. In this, her death, she has survived.

Greg Stahl
Uncovering the Salmon Nation
Sun Valley Guide, Summer 2005

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