by Rocky Barker
Twenty years ago this week a small group of Indians in eastern Idaho changed the world in the Columbia River Basin.
The Shoshone-Bannock Indian Tribes petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service on April 2, 1990 to list the Snake River sockeye salmon as an endangered species. Every single person who lived in the Columbia watershed, an area the size of France, would be affected by the tribes' decision to make a stand for the fish that had returned to their fishing grounds since time immemorial.
But even though everyone in the area got some power from the hydroelectric dams that were the major limiting factor to the salmon, I suspect many cannot trace much negative effects of the decision to list sockeye nor the other 12 stocks of salmon and steelhead now listed throughout the Columbia Basin. Despite the more than $10 billion dollars spent to make dams safer, improve hatcheries and restore salmon habitat, the price of electricity remains remarkably low throughout the Pacific Northwest and supplies are not strapped.
But farmers know they have given up water and some security to aid salmon migration. Ranchers have been forced to change grazing practices to reduce their impact on salmon spawning rivers. Logging practices have changed and hundreds of thousands of acres of timberlands are no longer harvested as much to save salmon as to protect the northern spotted owl. Many rural communities have not yet recovered and there are people who can connect their unemployment or underemployment to the salmon listings.
Management of the region's national forests went through a complete transformation that many like and many hate. But especially here in Idaho, the Shoshone-Bannock's act restored salmon to the minds of Idahoans.
We had all but lost them in the 1980s as we watched the Snake River coho salmon disappear without wimper from anglers or environmentalists. The battles between sport anglers and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game against the Nez Perce over fishing rights had made many people wonder if saving salmon were worth the trouble.
The Shoshone-Bannock's petition was followed in June by a petition from Oregon Trout and five other groups to list Snake River spring- run chinook salmon, Snake River summer-run chinook salmon, and Snake River fall-run chinook salmon. Because of the widespread impact of the spotted owl on rural Oregon and Washington, it was clear immediately that listing of salmon under the federal Endangered Species Act would have a dramatic economic, political and sociological effect.
Keith Tinno, then the chairman of the Sho-Bans, told me they took the step because the wild salmon were a part of their life they could not stand to lose. The two tribes had been thrown together by the United States government on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation and there were times when the two peoples could agree on much.
But the ancestors of both tribes were connected to the salmon and were willing to stand up even as it affected their own fishing. In fact, both sockeye and Snake River chinook were on their way to winking out in the early 1990s. The last of the ocean-going sockeye were removed and placed in a captive breeding program that has turned out to be remarkable successful.
And the initial steps taken to improve salmon migration through the dams, along with a critical turn of ocean conditions to a highly productive state in the late 1990s, halted the decline, at least temporarily. Hatchery stocks also benefited and Idaho anglers and tribe fishermen both have benefited.
New generations of Idahoans have stood along a river or sat in a boat and either caught a big salmon or just watched them scurry toward their final spawning dance.
The fight over salmon isn't over. Climate change has complicated the effort and forced all of us to examine our priorities.
But it all started with the principled stand of the Sho-Ban tribes to draw a line in the sand for salmon.
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