Year of the Fishby Rich Landers, Outdoors editor
Spokesman Review, December 30, 2001
2001 in review: Salmon, steelhead return to Columbia River in record numbers
Two years in a row, the big outdoors story of the year has boiled down to a four-letter word. Last year it was "fire."
This year, it's a different F-word.
Not a month has gone by in 2001 without some unprecedented news about FISH.
Salmon and steelhead returns to the Columbia River obliterated records dating back to 1938 and the completion of Bonneville Dam.
The fish benefited from a rare convergence of exceptional stream flows for outgoing juveniles in the late 1990s with a highly productive Pacific Ocean, rebounding from El Nino conditions.
The fish were plentiful, and fat, too. By fall, state fishing records for pink, coho and chum salmon were being topped day after day.
The stand-out run was upper Columbia spring chinook.
At Bonneville Dam, the spring chinook count rose from 10,200 fish in 1995 to 417,000 last spring, shattering the 1972 record of 280,400.
Recreational fishing on the lower Columbia was allowed in April for the first time since 1977, sparking an infusion of cash into depressed economies along the river.
Indeed, the stock market plunge cost Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates a few billion in net worth this year, and Boeing announced plans to lay off up to 30,000 workers. But businesses linked to the original pillar of Pacific Northwest livelihood were bucking the grim economic trends.
The lower Columbia fishery alone prompted an infusion of about $18 million, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. Idaho, which benefited from salmon and steelhead runs for a longer period, estimated the boost within the state at around $46 million.
Summer steelhead returns totaled 630,000 fish, the highest since counting began at Bonneville in 1938.
The old single-day steelhead record over the dam, almost 9,400 in July 1955, was exceeded several times this summer with 14 daily counts exceeding 10,000. A high of 14,400 fish climbed the ladders on Aug. 3.
Fall chinook returns were 520,000 fish. Coho numbers are incomplete, but it appears about 1.1 million fish returned to the Columbia, the best return since 1991.
Scientists say 2002 may be almost as good. But after that, no one knows.
Ironically, this year's fish bonanza was brewing as the region withered in the clutches of drought that bodes ill for fish.
Skiers were well aware of the low snowpack, which was about 60 percent of normal at Mount Spokane, 50 percent of normal at Lookout Pass, 35 percent of normal at Schweitzer.
On the bright side, snow receded and backpackers reached their favorite high-mountain trailheads earlier than normal this year.
But river-runners saw the whitewater season fade quickly.
By late July, Montana was restricting trout fishing on some streams.
Unrelated to drought, Montana also enacted more restrictions on nonresident hunters and anglers, banning them from fishing certain stretches of popular trout streams and prohibiting them from hunting the opening weekend of pheasant season.
Idaho catered to any hunter who would shoot a black bear in a certain portion of the state. The Fish and Game Department even bought bear bait for outfitters in an effort to reduce black bears in a small study area on the Clearwater National Forest.
The agency had yielded to complaints from animal rights groups and backed off a plan to hire gunners to reduce the bear numbers.
But the study was still necessary, biologists said, to learn whether bears deserve their reputation for depleting elk herds.
Trumpeter and tundra swans were dying in record numbers, apparently from poisonous lead shot resting on the beds of lakes and ponds from their northwest Washington wintering grounds even though use of lead shot in the state was phased out in 1988.
Wild turkey hunters lined up to buy tags for the most liberal limits ever this spring and fall. Washington hunters got their first-ever chance to hunt turkeys on the Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge.
Idaho remains so flush with turkeys, the state has decided to reduce the cost of turkey tags for next season.
Big-game managers throughout the West went on high alert after chronic wasting disease was diagnosed in farm-raised elk in Colorado and tuberculosis was found in a captive elk in Oregon.
The ramifications could not be overemphasized, they said, because the diseases could be transmitted to wild elk populations.
With pressure mounting on the alternative livestock industry because of this and other issues, some landowners reminded us that they always have a chance for a parting shot.
In the case of Louis Kakuk, it apparently would work as a sort of revenge against Montanans who voted last year to prohibit new game farms and ban fee hunting of captive animals.
"I don't really know what else I can do," said the alternative livestocker who's having to liquidate the 74 elk on his Kalispell-area ranch. "I think I'll pack up, throw a subdivision on my land and move someplace else."
Trout anglers at Lake Pend Oreille are taking a sort of unspoken poke at Idaho Fish and Game Department managers. The anglers appear to be willing to play the odds that agency biologists are full of baloney.
Even a program to give trophy rainbows to charity food banks couldn't entice the majority of Thanksgiving Derby anglers to bonk their big rainbows for the good of the fishery.
Time will tell if the kokanee crash because of too many predators working on them during their current population slump.
Biologists contend that a crash in the kokanee would also doom the rainbows.
While much of the nation has been consumed by the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration has been quietly working to open oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and undo some Clinton-era conservation measures.
The Forest Service moved to change Clinton Administration policies designed to protect undeveloped portions of national forests.
The interim policy follows the state of Idaho's successful court challenge to the Clinton plan that would have put 58 million acres -- more than 9 million in Idaho -- off limits to logging and other resource development.
Directives published in the Federal Register just before Christmas would alter a forest transportation policy developed during the Clinton administration that required each national forest to decide how many miles of roads it needs. Currently, more than 383,000 miles weave through 192 million acres of forests.
The changes remove a requirement that smaller, undeveloped areas next to large swaths of unroaded forest lands be protected unless there is a compelling need to develop them.
They also allow regional officials to decide if environmental and public reviews are necessary to determine if development is appropriate. The Clinton administration mandated the reviews.
"It removes all protection for smaller undeveloped areas that are often critically important wildlife habitats," said Mike Anderson, forest analyst at the Wilderness Society.
The directives will remain in effect for 18 months while the Forest Service decides what to do about the court decision in the Idaho case that blocked the roadless rule from taking effect.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Americans stayed home to the point of stalling the economy.
By mid-October, however, a poll found them ready to find solace in the outdoors.
About 70 percent of Americans planned to head outdoors this holiday season, according to a poll commissioned by outdoor retailer Recreational Equipment Inc.
Nine of 10 survey respondents said outdoor recreation relieves stress and lifts their spirits.
One person, however, wasn't getting out as much as he'd prefer.
James L. Wilson of Calder, Idaho, was thrown in the slammer in Shoshone County charged with leading a ring of international poachers that took large amounts of cutthroat trout and big-game animals from the St. Joe River area.
As repulsed as most people were by such wastage of game, many residents in northeaster Washington would probably cheer if a poacher were killing cougars in their neighborhoods.
Local lawmakers were angered by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission's reluctance to liberalize the issuing of cougar permits to hound hunters to help reduce human conflicts with the big cats.
As the year ends, Ferry County is trying to find a way to route funds from the state Fish and Wildlife Department so the county can establish its own "Wildlife Service" primarily to deal with cougar issues.
Some state legislators also are looking into usurping authority from the nine-member Fish and Wildlife Commission.
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