Twenty years ago this Saturday, a lone wild sockeye salmon made a 900-mile trek from the Pacific Ocean to Redfish Lake near Stanley, scaling eight dams and rising more than 6,500 feet to find his way home to the Sawtooth Valley.
The fish was dubbed "Lonesome Larry" when he arrived on Aug. 4, 1992. Though he was not able to naturally reproduce that year, he did contribute to a new generation of hatchery fish, and the yearly anniversary of his arrival serves as a reminder to salmon advocates of how far the species has come—and how far it may have to go.
Nine sockeye salmon have been trapped at Redfish Lake Creek and the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery near Stanley so far this year. While the season is still early, salmon advocates say the returns are likely to be down this year from last.
Greg Stahl, policy director for salmon advocacy group Idaho Rivers United, said that while numbers of returning sockeye increased steadily from 2008 to 2010, returns dropped in 2011 and are likely to drop again this year.
"The species is still very much in the emergency room," he said.
Last year, 1,118 hatchery fish and 150 natural fish followed Lonesome Larry's path and made it past the eight dams, including four contentious ones on the Lower Snake River. This year, however, only 430 sockeye made it past the Lower Granite Dam, the last of the Lower Snake dams. Dan Baker, hatchery manager for the Eagle Fish Hatchery in Eagle, Idaho, said that roughly 300 of those will make it to the Sawtooth Valley.
Hatchery fish are fish that have been carefully bred by biologists and geneticists at the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery near Stanley. The milt, or sperm, from Lonesome Larry was put on ice in 1992 and used to fertilize eggs from returning female sockeye in 1996 and 1997 as part of the hatchery's captive breeding program. According to Idaho Rivers United, up to 10 percent of returning sockeye each year are descended from that one determined fish.
As part of the hatchery's breeding program, females are artificially inseminated or eggs are fertilized and grow into fingerlings, which grow into smolts.
Smolts, young fish from 1 to 3 years old, are raised in hatchery tanks and eventually released into the lake to make their way to the Pacific Ocean to mature for anywhere from one to eight more years.
The hatchery has been stepping up its number of smolt releases in recent years, Stahl said.
"That's why you have seen increased returns," he said. "It's not because they are bouncing back on their own. If the hatchery program went away, the population will be in trouble again."
Tom Stuart, an Idaho Rivers United board member, said the low numbers of returning natural fish also show that the species, which was designated as endangered in 1991, is far from recovery levels. Sockeye returns numbered more than 4,000 wild fish in 1955, and Stuart said half that number of natural fish returns would be required to consider the species recovered.
"We need 2,000 natural-origin sockeye returning for eight consecutive years before we can even think about removing the species from the Endangered Species List," he said. "These returns represent only a fraction of the potential, only a fraction of what's needed for recovery."
What's holding the sockeye population back? Dams on the Lower Snake River, say wildlife advocates, though a spokesman from the Bonneville Power Administration, the company that owns the dams, said the issue is more complicated.
The Bonneville Power Administration uses four dams on the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington to generate electricity, though the dams are owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
According to the administration, the dams were built in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Federal Columbia River Power System, the largest source of electricity in the Pacific Northwest.
The Bonneville Power Administration says it relies on the dams to help meet peak power demands, especially in the summer and winter with high heating and cooling needs.
But the dams stand in the way of baby fish, which must go over them to get to the Pacific Ocean, as well as to returning fish, which must scale the dams to return to Redfish Lake to spawn.
Over the past four years, the dams' effect has been mitigated by court-ordered spills that help flush more fish over them, leading to better returns. Stahl said the spills have helped, but are clearly not enough to lead to species recovery.
"This isn't really debatable stuff," he said. "If you remove the dams, the fish will come back. A kindergartner can figure that out."
But Doug Johnson, spokesman for the Bonneville Power Administration, said the situation is not so simple. First, he pointed out, sockeye declines began in 1957, far before the four Lower Snake River Dams were built.
"There seems to be this real narrow focus on the dams as the only thing," he said. "That's just not true. We know the dams have had an impact, but we don't think it's the lone cause."
Johnson said the company is dedicated to helping sockeye salmon recover, which is why it has agreed to recommended spill levels and developed a plan that includes hydrosystem improvements, hatchery practices, habitat improvement and harvest of fish.
The plan does not include removal of the four contentious dams, however. According to a study conducted by the Northwest Power Council, removal of the dams and subsequent replacing of the dam's energy would increase carbon emissions by 3 million tons per year and raise power rates by 24 to 29 percent.
"It would be a pretty serious blow," Johnson said.
Power companies and wildlife advocates are set to sit down this year to hammer out a new salmon conservation plan after a federal judge ruled last year that the federal government's salmon recovery blueprint was illegal.
Johnson and Stahl agreed that spills could help, and Stahl said salmon activists may agree to waiting five years to allow increased spills if in return they could reach an agreement for the dams to be torn down if those spills don't have the desired result.
"There is a window right now to get it right," he said.
Meanwhile, Lonesome Larry has been preserved and is hanging on the wall of the M.K. Nature Center in Boise, a reminder of how close the species is to extinction.
Kate Wutz: email@example.com