Outfitted in hip waders and equipped with a bucket, Idaho Gov. Jim Risch smiled for the dozen or so flashing cameras as he helped release 470 hatchery-raised adult sockeye salmon from Washington state into the chilly waters of Redfish Lake near Stanley last Friday.
"We're naming this one Lucky Larry," Risch said to a crowd of Fish and Game and Forest Service employees, salmon advocates and media as a plump sockeye spilled out of his bucket. It was a play on the name given in 1992 to the lone sockeye salmon that returned to Redfish Lake from the Pacific Ocean.
"He likes us," Risch joked as the fish lingered around his feet in the shallows of its namesake lake.
"He's asking for help, governor," chimed Tom Stuart, a longtime salmon advocate and board member of the conservation group Idaho Rivers United.
The banter was symbolic of a day wrought with mixed emotions.
The governor's office touted the release as an important contribution to the 15-year-old sockeye breeding-and-rearing program. Salmon activists said it was a bittersweet attempt to buy the extinct-bound fish a little extra time.
"While we applaud the Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologists for their work, and we applaud Governor Risch for working to maintain funding for the sockeye life-support program, we must recognize that today's release of hatchery adults will not help restore the Redfish Lake sockeye population," Stuart said. "Upward to 90 percent of the baby sockeye that these adults spawn will be killed by dams and reservoirs during their downstream migration next year."
Historically, up to 30,000 sockeye completed the annual 900-mile migration from the Pacific Ocean to Redfish Lake, which is at an elevation of 6,500 feet. This year only three wild sockeye, which turn color from silver to red during the spawning season in September and October, returned to their birthplace in Redfish Lake.
Scott Levy, a salmon advocate and filmmaker who runs the salmon data site bluefish.org, said of the 470 adult sockeye released in Redfish Lake, he only expects about four offspring to successfully return in the coming years.
"Abandoning the recovery of these fish is not an option," Risch said. "The heritage that these fish represent is too valuable to not give them a fighting chance for survival."
In June, Risch rallied to override an 11-member scientific panel that recommended abandoning sockeye recovery in the Salmon River basin.
"At this time it appears the (Salmon River sockeye) is extinct in the wild, and reintroduction efforts have not proceeded easily or successfully," the panel's report stated.
Under pressure from Risch, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council unanimously recommended doling out $2.75 million to continue sockeye recovery efforts.
But salmon activists said the move was based solely on a "not on my watch" policy.
"No politician wants these fish to go extinct while they're in office," Stuart said.
The governor said he agrees that "we must do more to increase their numbers." But his views of how that can and should be accomplished are dramatically different than those of salmon activists.
"The surest way to restore Redfish Lake sockeye is to remove four, high-cost, low-value dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington," said Bert Bowler, native fisheries program director for Idaho Rivers United.
According to Idaho Rivers United, those four dams—Lower Granite, Little Goose, Lower Monumental and Ice Harbor—reportedly kill between 80 and 90 percent of juvenile salmon, called smolts, migrating from Idaho's high alpine lakes and streams to the Pacific Ocean every year.
Levy said that figure is actually closer to 60 percent and includes the four dams on the Columbia River.
Scott Simms, of the Bonneville Power Administration, claims the four Lower Snake River dams only kill about 20 percent of juvenile salmon in an average year.
When Sunbeam Dam was erected on the Salmon River near Stanley in 1910, salmon populations in the Stanley Basin plummeted. When the dam was breached in 1934, the fish made a triumphant return. By 1955, seven years before the first Lower Snake River dam (Ice Harbor) was erected, more than 4,300 sockeye returned to Redfish Lake.
By the time the final lower Snake River dam (Lower Granite) was completed in 1975, sockeye returns to Redfish Lake had once again fallen to a fraction of historic figures. Between 1991 and 1999, a total of just 22 sockeye returned to Redfish Lake.
"The government needs to be honest about what needs to be done for Redfish Lake sockeye now, while there is still time to restore them," said Bowler, who joined Idaho Rivers United in 2001 after a 29-year career with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
"Populations do fluctuate up and down naturally," Risch said after stepping out of Redfish Lake. "As much as anything, ocean conditions are very important. We really need to look at out-of-basin conditions. We don't know much about that."
Judi Danielson, a Northwest Power and Conservation Council member, said removing the dams would actually hinder salmon recovery.
"That's not going to bring back salmon," she said. "Removing those four dams will sterilize the river with silt ... then we'll have no salmon.
"Dam removal is a red herring."
Risch thinks it's still debatable whether the four lower Snake River Dams are actually contributing to the fish's plight.
If they are, should they be removed to prevent extinction?
"We still have to cross that bridge, and that bridge is a big if," Risch said. "But if we find out that's the case, I suspect there will be a spirited debate on that issue."
Bowler said Risch's acknowledgement that the dam issue could spur a "spirited debate" was more than most politicians have ever conceded.
"It's a step in the right direction. It gets us a little closer," Bowler said, holding his thumb and index finger an inch apart.