the film
Commentaries and editorials

White House Continues to Put
Dams Ahead of Salmon Recovery

by Editorial Board
Idaho Statesman, November 3, 2007

The federal government has released its latest "biological opinions" that promise a plan to protect the Northwest's salmon. Let's call these documents what they really are. They are another batch of dam preservation plans - not salmon recovery plans.

Sure enough, and no surprise, the feds have ruled out breaching four lower Snake River dams in Washington state - the one move that may provide Idaho wild salmon their best and perhaps last chance at recovery. While this plan shows no regard to fisheries science, it is at least a bow to consistency. The Bush administration will leave office with an unblemished eight-year record of placing dams ahead of Idaho salmon.

The administration is once again arguing that the dams do not place the future of the Northwest's salmon and steelhead in jeopardy.

In order to buy what the feds are selling, you have to conveniently ignore the fact that only four adult sockeye salmon managed to navigate their way around the dams this year to return to Central Idaho's Sawtooth Basin.

Four. Sixteen years after the sockeye were added to the feds' endangered species list - and became eligible for the protections that are supposed to come with such a designation.

Even the feds' dam preservation plan allows a glimpse of harsh reality into the sockeye's future. "Recognizing the extremely low numbers of adults returning since before the species was listed, (the sockeye) has faced and continues to face substantial obstacles to achieving recovery."

One of those obstacles, evidently, is not in and around Redfish Lake, the Idaho mountain gem named for the sockeye that once returned in much greater numbers. Says the feds' report: "The Redfish Lake watershed lies within designated wilderness and the conservation value of the non-wilderness lake area habitat is considered good to excellent."

Idaho salmon advocates point their attention at the downstream dams because that's where the problems occur. The dams stand squarely in the path between the ocean, where sockeye spend most of their lives, and their pristine Idaho habitat. The feds acknowledge that the sockeye are threatened by the lack of a naturally spawning, self-sustaining population, and small population numbers that result in "possible genetic bottlenecks."

The dams are the bottleneck. The feds insist that Idaho can have back its sockeye, and Washington state can still have its dams. No matter how many times the federal agencies say it, it just doesn't wash.

While the feds stubbornly roll out dam preservation plans, U.S. District Judge James Redden has proven to be equally unyielding - to the benefit of Idaho salmon. Redden has tossed out previous Bush administration plans, and this latest document is destined to end up in his Portland courtroom.

Redden has held out for salmon recovery plans that will actually save salmon - in sustainable, fishable numbers. He is holding the feds to their legal obligation under the Endangered Species Act. This is not judicial activism. It demonstrates a strict adherence to the law that represents the last hope for salmon runs such as the sockeye.

The most recent federal plans are just more of the same from an administration which has long had its mind made up. Remember August 2003, when President Bush stood at Ice Harbor Dam and spoke in favor of the dams? That fall, three sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Basin. This fall, four returned. This remarkable fish, this icon of Idaho at its most wild and irrepressible, may yet survive eight years of Bush administration indifference, but not by much.

Do the sockeye foreshadow what awaits Idaho's more plentiful, yet still scarce, chinook salmon runs? We hope not. For now, the sockeye's dwindling numbers should remind Idahoans why the feds' dam preservation plans lack scientific credibility.

"Our View" is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman's editorial board. To comment on an editorial or suggest a topic, e-mail

Related Pages:
The opinions and supporting documents are available here.
Idaho's Sockeye: FCRPS Biological Opinion NOAA Fisheries' Executive Summary, 10/31/7

Editorial Board
White House Continues to Put Dams Ahead of Salmon Recovery
Idaho Statesman, November 3, 2007

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