"They're counting their salmon before they're hatched. They're assuming things will continue to get better. It's not really doing anything to save salmon. It's a way to protect the dams and trying to find legal ways to defend it by saying the dams are part of the baseline or the landscape."
—Scott Levy, Bluefish.org
Local salmon advocates balked this week at a Bush administration plan announced last week that ruled out the possibility of removing federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers to help endangered salmon and steelhead recover.
"We kind of knew that was coming, but I can't believe they actually did it," said Stephen Pauley, a Sun Valley resident and former board member of Idaho Rivers United, an Idaho conservation group. "They want us to believe a dam was a pre-existing part of the river, like a rock or a stick or something. It makes no sense."
Central Idaho might seem like an odd place for salmon champions to live, but each fall, sockeye and chinook salmon, as well as steelhead, return from the Pacific Ocean to the upper reaches of the Salmon River in the Sawtooth Valley to spawn and renew their lifecycles. At 900 miles, it's the longest anadromous fish migration in North America, but fish populations are at a fraction of their historic vigor.
The Bush administration first announced its draft biological opinion Aug. 31. In a nutshell, the opinion—delivered in its final form Tuesday, Nov. 30—repeats its position that federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers do not "jeopardize" the continued survival and recovery of endangered salmon and steelhead. The opinion does not portend to help the fish recovery.
"It is clear that each of the dams already exists, and their existence is beyond the present discretion" of federal agencies to change, according to the opinion.
The dams "are part of the landscape," said NOAA Fisheries spokesman Brian Gorman. "We can't assume they're not when we think about what the dam operators ought to do. Dams do kill fish. Fish would be better off without dams. Dams are engineering marvels. But so is the fish slide that's going to be installed at Ice Harbor (on the Lower Snake) next spring. As a practical matter, we are on the right road."
Under the Endangered Species Act, the operation of the eight major federal hydroelectric dams in the region cannot jeopardize the survival of those fish, and it is up to NOAA Fisheries to issue a biological opinion saying how dams must be operated to assure the fish survive.
The biological opinion calls for more barging and for installation of new spillway weirs designed to aid salmon and steelhead smolts on their seaward journeys. The cost of the measures over a 10-year period is projected to be $6 billion.
This opinion came about because of a May 2003 decision by U.S. District Judge James Redden that a 2000 biological opinion was illegal because the federal government could not guarantee that habitat enhancements and upgrades to hatchery and dam operations would be completed. The lawsuit was brought by some of the same conservation groups that are upset with the new opinion.
The 2000 plan included a provision that if improvements did not occur or fish populations did not improve, the government had to reconsider removing four dams on the lower Snake River by the year 2010.
Local salmon advocates said it is clear that the 2000 decision was a step better than what they are now facing.
"They're counting their salmon before they're hatched," said Scott Levy, a Ketchum resident and founder of bluefish.org, an online warehouse of information related to anadromous fish. "They're assuming things will continue to get better. It's not really doing anything to save salmon. It's a way to protect the dams and trying to find legal ways to defend it by saying the dams are part of the baseline or the landscape."
What's more, Levy pointed out that the decision ignores Snake River sockeye salmon, an endangered species that spawns in the glacial lakes of the Sawtooth Valley. Sockeye salmon have experienced dismal returns for more than a decade. Politicians trumpeted the success of recovery efforts in 2000, when more than 200 sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley. Last summer, 22 sockeye returned.
Nonetheless, Pauley said filing the lawsuit was still the right thing for the conservation groups to do.
"The 2000 biological opinion was better, but I don't think that was a reason not to have filed that suit," Pauley said. "It's clear that (the Bush administration) feels they can do whatever they want to the environment for the next four years."
Buck Drew, a Ketchum dentist and Idaho Rivers United board member, said he, too, is disappointed about the new opinion.
"It just means we're going to have to work harder on the local front to restore a harvestable and viable population," he said. "We weren't really expecting the administration to change from its draft plan, but we're still disappointed."
Gorman said the next move will be for Judge Redden to make.
"It's a done deal," he said. "That's it. I think it's up to Judge Redden to decide what the next steps are. As far as we are concerned, we have filled our obligation to rewrite the biological opinion."
The new biological opinion is only the latest blow the conservation community has taken with regard to salmon recovery.
In April, federal officials announced a new policy that would not differentiate between hatchery-raised and wild salmon.
The decision stemmed from a federal court ruling when U.S. District Judge Michael R. Hogan found that the federal government made a mistake by counting only wild fish—and not genetically similar hatchery fish—when it listed coastal coho salmon.
"There was an inescapable reasoning to Judge Hogan's ruling," Bob Lohn, NOAA Fisheries' Northwest regional administrator, told a Northwest newspaper in response to questions about why the government did not appeal the decision. "We thought his reasoning was accurate."