Issue of: May 13, 1998  


Fish and Game Commission comes out of hiding

After years of foot dragging and delay, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission last week came to the unavoidable conclusion that restoring the lower Snake River to natural conditions offers the best chance for recovery of Idaho salmon and steelhead runs. The commission finally looked the data in the eye and didn’t flinch.

Better late, than never.

Idaho’s salmon are on the endangered species list and steelhead are on the bullet train destined for listing. Biologists who have studied the issue say breaching Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor dams in Washington will restore Idaho’s salmon runs.

The commission had been buffeted badly by political winds that threatened to snuff out its role as the primary advocate for Idaho wildlife.

Criticism from wildlife advocacy groups had grown heated in recent weeks. The groups had charged that the commission and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game had failed to defend the state’s wildlife. The criticism was richly deserved.

The department had assented to development of an expanded Air Force bombing range at Mountain Home despite probable negative impacts on a herd of California bighorn sheep that will live—or die-- under the shadow of high-speed jets. The department and the commission had been silent about the benefits of drawing down reservoir waters to give salmon smolts a quicker, safer ride to the ocean.

Last week, the commission stopped short of calling for breaching four dams on the lower Snake River, but it left little standing between it and the dynamite.

The dams provide little power, virtually no flood control and irrigation for just 13 Washington farmers. The dams make Lewiston an inland seaport. The city is the primary political obstacle to breaching the dams. Millions of bushels of wheat are shipped from the port to the coast every year. It would suffer if the port were closed.

However, the fish are pitting sufferers against sufferers, and one economy against another. Commercial fishing operations in the Northwest have been drying up as the fish disappeared.

In Idaho, outfitters and guides have been left with whitewater as the primary attraction for visitors. Their whitewater operations have been hammered by restrictions on when and where they may operate because of potential disturbance to endangered spawning salmon. Anyone in Stanley will tell anyone willing to listen what it was like on the upper Salmon River last summer.

Breaching the dams is the last best hope for bringing back the Northwest’s $500 million commercial and sport fishing industry. Shutting down the dams will save $200 million on upgrades and repairs and much of the $300 million spent annually on hatcheries.

The studies are done. The ledgers are balanced. It’s an election year, and the choice is clear: Four dams of questionable value or salmon of immense value.

The fish are the better choice.


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