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For the week of August 1 - 7, 2001


Salmon return quietly amid political debate

Express Staff Writer

Amid political posturing among Pacific Northwest politicians on the issue of salmon recovery, Salmon River sockeye and summer chinook salmon are quietly swimming toward their ancestral spawning grounds in the Sawtooth Valley.

More than 30 sockeye have been counted passing Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River, the last of eight dams the fish must circumvent on their journey home, Idaho Department of Fish and Game reported. Lower Granite sockeye counts are similar to the 10-year average but only 12 percent of the 2000 count for this time.

Summer chinook counts, on the other hand, are looking stronger than the 10-year average. By last Thursday, 72,709 chinook had passed Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Bonneville is the first of the eight dams.

Still, the numbers of fish returning pale in comparison to historic counts, which began to dwindle when the Snake and Columbia rivers were dammed in the mid 20th century.

Of the 30 sockeye that passed Lower Granite, four have made it to Fish and Game’s Sawtooth Valley traps, Sawtooth Fish Hatchery Manager Brent Snider said.

Nearly all returning sockeye, and a significant number of returning chinook, will be hatchery-raised fish, though scientists won’t know for sure until genetic samples are taken from the fish.

Snider said he expects the first chinook to return any day, and the fish are expected to continue passing Lower Granite through the end of August.

Meanwhile, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and other Northwest politicians are championing legislation and better funding to help restore salmon populations to their historic flows.

On July 18, Kempthorne announced that Idaho will receive $8 million from the Bonneville Power Administration to fund five salmon-related projects in the Salmon River basin.

The package is the result of eight months of negotiations between the Kempthorne administration, the Bonneville Power Administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

"This is truly a partnership between groups that sometimes have been adversaries in developing strategies to save endangered fish and habitat," Kempthorne said. "Idaho has stepped forward and come up with an agreement that can be a model for the region."

Idaho Rivers United, an environmental group, said Kempthorne’s plan "surely leaves room for improvement." The group pointed out that it was denied the opportunity to participate in the process.

"What the governor did not mention is that we repeatedly requested to be included in these negotiations," said Dan Skinner, conservation organizer for the group. "Apparently collaboration for the governor does not include conservation groups.

"The plan will do very little in the large picture of salmon recovery in Idaho," Skinner predicted. "We could spend billions on improving habitat there and still not recover Idaho’s salmon. Until we address the lower Snake River, we are ignoring the problem."

A congressional plan, sponsored by Reps. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and Thomas Petri, R-Wis., would initiate "a series of studies on the impacts of retiring the four lower Snake River dams" if a current plan to increase populations by improving habitat, hatchery programs and stream flows fails.

The bill, called the Salmon Planning Act, has received stamps of approval from several environmental groups.

"This proposal shows us that salmon recovery is a social issue. We need to keep everyone whole while recovering our salmon and steelhead," said Mitch Sanchotena of Idaho Steelhead and Salmon Unlimited. "The Salmon Planning Act is good for people, communities and fish."

While the political debate continues, this summer’s returning fish—less than 1 percent of their historic populations—are quietly fighting Northwest river currents, swimming a seemingly impossible upstream journey to complete their lives’ circles.

The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.