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Commentaries and editorials

Protecting Snake River Basin Wild Spring/Summer Chinook, Steelhead
from Extinction Requires Lower Snake Dam Removal

by Tom Stuart
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 13, 2022

Feedback comments in the January 6, CBB from Mr. Fred Mensik regarding "Removing Lower Snake dams will not return salmon, steelhead to historic spawning habitat," are inaccurate and misleading.

  1. Mr. Mensik misleads readers and misrepresents the significant salmon recovery that Lower Snake River (LSR) restoration would initiate, and ignores the vast, underutilized habitat of central Idaho and NE Oregon. He asserts that removal of the four Lower Snake River dams will not restore natal habitat for salmon above the Hells Canyon complex, which blocked fish passage to the Boise, Weiser, Payette, and middle Snake Rivers. Removing the LSR dams would also do nothing to restore salmon to the Columbia above Grand Coulee, or to the Willamette, the Spokane, or the Kootenai River. The loss of all those habitats (or access to them) contributed to the decline of a historic wild salmon return of 10-16 million fish annually. So, although Mr. Mensik's data point may be correct, his premise is utterly irrelevant to the issue at hand. It ignores the vast salmon habitat in central Idaho and northeast Oregon (5000 river miles) that is accessible now, but is practically devoid of adult salmon returns because of the cumulative negative impacts of a lethal migration corridor.

  2. Regional salmon recovery goals have been established by the Columbia Basin Partnership; for the Snake R basin, goals include about 127,000 wild spring/summer Chinook and about 104,000 wild steelhead. The NW Power and Conservation Council has established an SAR average goal of 4%, within a range of 2-6% (smolt-to-adult return rate). We are far from achieving those goals. None of these goals can be achieved, nor can any individual Snake R salmon stock be de-listed from the ESA, without removing the four LSR dams. Rigorous analyses confirm that removing the four LSR dams (and replacing their benefits) will achieve the SAR goals, restore 140 miles of mainstem habitat, and restore salmon returns to more than 5000 river miles of high elevation, high quality, protected tributary habitat for salmon and steelhead.

  3. Removing the Lower Snake dams and replacing their benefits with alternatives (restoring a free-flowing lower Snake River) will remove a survival bottleneck to the best cold-water salmon habitat remaining now in the Columbia Basin. This is particularly true for spring/summer Chinook and steelhead in the Tucannon, Imnaha, Menaha, Grand Ronde, Clearwater, and Salmon Rivers. The Salmon River case is egregious; in the vast and productive habitat there, salmon restoration isn't about a lack of natal habitat. It's about improving SARs. Before the LSR dams were completed, SARs ranged from 3-6%; now, with eight dams in place, the average SAR of wild spring/summer chinook salmon originating in these habitats is 0.7% -- putting them on a certain extinction path. The SAR for wild steelhead is only slightly better -- about 1.6% -- well below the minimum replacement level and far outside the 2-6% range. The only strategies that can improve SARs sufficiently and protect these fish from extinction require LSR dam removal.

  4. Consider wild spring/summer Chinook originating in Idaho's Middle Fork Salmon River watershed, which is perhaps the highest quality natal habitat in the Columbia River basin now. Most of it lies in protected federally-designated Wilderness. In the 1960s, 20,000-25,000 redds were constructed annually by returning salmon -- reflecting 40-000-50,000 adults returning to that single tributary. In 2019, there were only 161 redds -- 322 adult salmon. Restoring salmon in this tributary alone would be sufficient to de-list Snake R s/s Chinook. Exceptional, abundant habitat remains here and elsewhere in the Snake River basin. Achieving recovery depends on restoring the migration corridor and increasing SARs, which will require LSR dam removal. It isn't about natal habitat. Mr. Mensik's distractions are irresponsible.

  5. Mr. Mensik's comments about fall chinook are also inaccurate. Removal of the Lower Snake dams would restore 140 miles of historically productive mainstem habitat for fall Chinook. Many biologists note that this 140-mile reach could easily support many thousands of adult fish each year -- without access to habitat above Hells Canyon.
Let's focus our energies on the urgent tasks and the real opportunities before us today. No distortions, no distractions.

Tom Stuart
Protecting Snake River Basin Wild Spring/Summer Chinook, Steelhead from Extinction Requires Lower Snake Dam Removal
Columbia Basin Bulletin, January 13, 2022

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