By SCOTT LEVY
Scott Levy, of Ketchum, hosts the Web site bluefish.org
In 2000, the federal agency National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration Fisheries reported that four dams on the lower Columbia River and four dams on the lower Snake River are the greatest source of human-inflicted mortality on Idaho's salmon and steelhead.
In looking at 1994-1999 data, NOAA Fisheries' scientists report that 60 percent of juvenile steelhead and spring chinook perish during their downstream migration through these eight dams and reservoirs. For juvenile fall chinook, mortality is over 90 percent. Injuries from the hydropower system also contribute to mortality once the fish reach the ocean but to what extent is undetermined. Mortality rates for Idaho sockeye are unknown as they are simply too few in numbers to count, but "clearly the risk of extinction is very high."
Within the federal 2000 Biological Opinion were 199 actions that would be taken over the coming years to promote self-sustaining populations of endangered salmon and steelhead. Chief among these actions was a check-in plan to monitor the effect of the other actions. If the downward trend of populations were not reversed, NOAA Fisheries would ask Congress to consider removal of the four lower Snake River dams.
But that was then and this is now.
One month ago, NOAA Fisheries removed these key provisions of the 2000 Biological Opinion, stating, "Based upon the review of the current status of stocks, the updated jeopardy analysis, and the lack of certainty in obtaining congressional appropriation and authorization, the Army Corps Engineers has determined inclusion of contingency planning for dam breaching is not appropriate."
This month's "Citizen Update—Making Progress for Salmon and Steelhead" further states that "Because the dams were built before the fish were listed under Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries is evaluating the dams as part of the pre-existing conditions." So even though runs took a precipitous decline after the lower Snake River dams were built, the dams' existence will no longer be considered as an impediment to Idaho's salmon recovery.
For those that are keeping count, 27 adult sockeye salmon returned to Idaho this year. Sediment study of Redfish Lake indicates that for thousands of years, 20,000 to 30,000 adult sockeye would return to spawn in this lake. Over 50 tons of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous were imported from the ocean by these returning fish every year for millennia. Alturas, Pettit, Yellow Belly and Stanley Lakes once hosted spawning sockeye as well. As you head north over Galena Summit, you can easily locate these lakes as a weakened forest devastated by mountain pine beetles surrounds them. Recall that trees need three things: sunlight, nutrients and water. Is there a relationship here?
Are the Lower Snake River dams here to stay? Will Idaho ever again host self-sustaining runs of salmon and steelhead? I for one do not know and often wonder as to what others think. Can any of us really make a difference? Enjoy your holiday and don't forget to think.