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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of November 21 - 27, 2001


ESA listing no 
boon to sockeye

Idaho’s endangered salmon 
population continues to slip

Express Staff Writer

In the fall of 1992, a lone, red-colored salmon arrived in the Sawtooth Valley near Stanley after completing a 900-mile journey from the Pacific that forced him to climb man-made fish ladders, skirt eight concrete dams and gain 7,000 feet in elevation.

Former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus helps release Idaho’s first batch of hatchery-raised sockeye salmon in 1993 at Redfish Lake. Express Photo: Willy Cook

Lonesome Larry, as the single sockeye salmon was dubbed, had heeded one of nature’s strongest calls—that of spawning and perpetuating his species’ existence. But when he arrived in Central Idaho, he was the only sockeye to complete the journey. Natural reproduction, that year, would have to wait.

Ten years ago this month since Northwest sockeye salmon were thrust into the nation’s spotlight as an endangered species. And it’s been 10 years since a myriad of mitigating regulations and programs were implemented by varying state and federal agencies to at least help sustain sockeye populations while more permanent solutions to the species’ decline are sought.

Annual sockeye salmon migrations to Idaho from the Pacific once numbered in the tens of thousands. By 1988, only four fish completed the 900-mile journey, and in 1990, zero sockeye returned to Idaho.

Including Lonesome Larry, just 11 sockeye salmon completed the 900-mile migration from the Pacific Ocean to the Sawtooth Valley’s Redfish Lake between 1992 and 1997. Since 1997, another 291 returned.

"It’s nowhere near recovery levels," said Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s Sawtooth Hatchery manager, Brent Snider.

Fueled by captive breeding and habitat preservation programs, sockeye have remained on life support since their ESA listing. Captive breeding programs have contributed to a handful of relatively encouraging returns, but most, if not all, of the returning fish are hatchery-reared. Wild sockeye runs are all but gone.

In 2000, when 257 sockeye—all hatchery-born fish—returned to the Sawtooth Valley, Fish and Game personnel were quick to qualify the success.

"To treat this with a lot of optimism is not the way it should be portrayed," said former Fish and Game fisheries biologist Dave Cannamela. "We need lots of years of improved conditions, and we cannot expect Mother Nature to improve conditions with these (Lower Snake River and Columbia river) dams in place.

"The real problem is still there. The artery still has the clogs in it. The patient is still in the emergency room. When things go bad again, as we know they will, we’ll be back to really bad—and even worse—shape."

Environmental groups and many biologists are quick to point out that sockeye and other anadromous fish declines are largely the result of four Lower Snake River dams, which were built between 1961 and 1975. There are four more dams on the lower Columbia River.

Sockeye populations fluctuated considerably throughout the 20th century, but took a sharp downward turn in the late-1970s, around the time the Snake River dams were completed.

However, the decline of sockeye, as well as chinook and choho salmon and steelhead species in the Columbia and Salmon river basins, is due to a combination of factors, according to a University of Washington report. In the late-1800s and early 1900s, commercial fishermen took 80 percent of the returning adult salmon. As a benchmark, in 1881 1,600 pounds of fresh sockeye were harvested by prospectors at Alturas Lake in the Sawtooth Valley.

Later silt and other debris from over-grazing and logging operations began to clog up spawning areas.

Finally, the harnessing of hydroelectric power, considered a boon to the Pacific Northwest’s economy, ultimately proved to be the last straw.

While researchers estimate that between 5 and 10 percent of adult salmon heading upriver die at each dam they must pass, it is the young salmon, called smolts, that face the highest mortality rates as they drift on river currents toward the Pacific in spring. An estimated 15 to 30 percent of migrating smolts die at each dam they encounter, according to the Audubon Society.

Also, according to an extinction study released by Trout Unlimited last spring, Snake and Columbia river salmon runs face genetic extinction in five to 31 years.

"The findings of this study make clear that in spite of the recent high runs of salmon, the future of the Snake River salmon is dim and is in fact fading with every passing year, said Jeff Curtis, Western Conservation Director for Trout Unlimited. "…Wild Snake River salmon are going to go extinct in our lifetime if something doesn’t happen soon to turn around their decline."

Meanwhile, biologists are attempting to sustain the ailing population of sockeye while more permanent fixes are sought.

Idaho Fish and Game Biologist Paul Kline heads the state’s sockeye captive breeding program.

"This is still an ongoing experiment to see if captive brood stock can be used to offset populations during horrible times, and we continue to learn new things each year," he said. "We shouldn’t be trying to save these fish right now. We can’t."

Kline said the state’s captive breeding program is currently operating at capacity, and shouldn’t increase in size quickly so the program doesn’t overwhelm the numbers the natural system can support.

"We could easily overwhelm the lakes if we weren’t careful," he said. "The year we returned 257 adults, we actually exceeded our capacity. We don’t plan to produce that many fish again."

Kline added that his agency is struggling to maintain a healthy dose of genetic diversity among sockeye populations. It’s a tall order in times when wild fish returns are next to nothing.

"How long can we keep this population closed in the hatchery without wild fish coming back?," He asked. "I don’t know.

"It’s an experiment. It’s not a full-fledged production-type program."


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.