Agencies will rely on other action to save fish
By Rocky Barker
The Idaho Statesman
Federal officials said they will delay until 2008 the longawaited decision on whether to breach four Snake River dams to save Idaho’s salmon.
In the meantime, a plan for a comprehensive suite of recovery measures to save 12 runs of endangered salmon in the Columbia River Basin is expected to be announced next week.
To keep Idaho’s Snake River’s runs from going extinct while they assess the dams, federal officials would expand a captive breeding program that supplements wild populations with fish raised in hatcheries.
Clinton administration officials have been saying since late last year that they would not immediately recommend breaching the four dams in Washington but neither would they take the drastic measure off the table. But in the strongest statement to date Wednesday, they confirmed their policy and laid out the timetable for a future decision.
The decision disappointed envirormentalists but pleased Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, who is working with the governors of Oregon, Washington and Montana on their own plan for restoring salmon.
The soonest you’ll have full discussion on breaching dams is 10 years,” Kempthorne said.
That’s why I want to move forward aggressively on all four H’s – harvest, hatchery, hydro-power and habitat.”
Salmon are a living icon of the wild character of the Pacific Northwest that provide economic benefits to fishing-related businesses and spiritual sustenance to the region’s Indians. The four dams in Washington allow barges to travel from Lewiston to the Pacific and produce 5 percent of the region’s electricity, enough to power a city the size of Seattle.
The comprehensive plan calls for major changes in farming, logging and building practices throughout the Columbia basin to improve water quality and salmon spawning habitat. It also calls for increased river flows and changes in dam operations that could add to the cost of electricity.
Will Stelle, National Marine Fisheries Service Pacific Northwest director, outlined the federal decision Wednesday in a telephone press conference. He and eight other federal agencies plan to release details of the comprehensive salmon restoration plan for the Columbia River basin July 27.
The fisheries service also will release its draft biological opinion on operations of the federal hydroelectric power system. The opinion, required under the federal Endangered Species Act, guides the operation of federal dams throughout the Pacific Northwest.
The biological opinion will include a set of performance standards to measure salmon recovery efforts. After eight years, if the wild salmon populations continue on the downward slide, then federal officials would recommend to Congress that the four dams should be breached, Stelle said.
Those standards include:n- A rising population trend of the endangered 12 salmon and steelhead stocks.n- Improved egg to smolt survival.n- Compliance with the federal Clean Water Act in salmon streams.n- Meeting of river flow targets in salmon rivers.n- Completion of specific habitat restoration projects.
The precise targets will be released in the biological opinion. Stelle did not say how much water will be required from Idaho to meet flow targets.
Idaho political leaders have stood together in opposition to both breaching dams and augmenting river flows with water from Idaho reservoirs such as Lucky Peak.
“It would be foolish in the extreme to Iimit the tools in our recovery toolbox to the narrow choice of breaching or flow augmentation,” said Steve Johnson, a spokesman for Idaho United for Fish and Water, an industry group formed to oppose breaching and the taking of additional water.
Most federal, state, tribal and independent biologists say breaching the four dams is the best way to save Snake River salmon and steelhead. Many of these same scientists say the fish will become extmct if the dams aren’t breached. But the National Marine Fisheries Service has pinned much of its restoration hopes on habitat improvement programs.
But because most of the spawning habitat in Idaho is located in wilderness or other federally protected areas, the habitat is generally in the best condition of the entire region.
To make up for delaying the decision on the dams, the fisheries service will rely on expanding the program of supplementing wild salmon with fish raised in hatcheries.
In this procedure, biologists collect the eggs and sperm of wild salmon adults, hatch the eggs and raise the fish to fingerlings. They release them into the river where they were collected in the spring. When the salmon return, they are allowed to spawn naturally.
The pracfice is strongly advocated by the Nez Perce and other Columbia River tribes. Kempthorne said the state also supports it but wants to allow wild fish to remain undisturbed in certain watersheds such as the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
Geneticists say any time salmon are taken from the wild and raised part of their life in hatcheries, they lose some of their ability to survive in the wild. Past programs have had mixed results.
But with dam breaching delayed, and salmon populations on a serious donward spiral, geneticist Rick Williams of Meridian said it might be necessary.
“I would say it’s probably the most reasonable thing to do to buy us time,” he said.
Scott Bosse, conservation biologist for Idaho Rivers United said the decision to delay breaching will mean some Snake River salmon runs will likely go extinct.
“To punt on dam removal is a decision to sacrifice Snake River salmon on the alter of presidential politics,” Bosse said.
Vice President Al Gore, the presumed Democratic nominee for President, has stopped short of endorsing breaching. Instead, he’s calling for a salmon summit after the election to revisit the issue.
Texas Gov. Bush, the certain Republican nominee, Wednesday pushed Gore to take a firm position.
“Al Gore should take a stand,” Bush said in a statement. “I say we can use technology to save the salmon, without leaving the door open to destroying these dams.”
July 20, 2000