One of a Kind
The wild salmon and steelhead of central Idaho, southeastern Washington, and northeastern Oregon are an incredible story of nature that began over 100 million years ago. When dinosaurs roamed the earth, salmon were swimming in our waters. The journey through time and the heroic lives of Snake River salmon make them one of a kind. Snake River salmon travel more than 900 miles inland and climb almost 7,000 feet to reach their spawning grounds – the highest salmon spawning habitats on earth, and the largest and wildest habitat left in the continental United States.
Idaho Statesman: Sockeye get their wildness back
By Rocky Barker
November 24, 2014
In his essay "Walking," Henry David Thoreau wrote, "In Wildness is the preservation of the World." That sentiment grew into the philosophical foundation on which the modern environmental movement was built.
"From the forests and wilderness comes the tonics and barks which brace mankind," Thoreau wrote. The farther from wildness we get, he was telling us, the weaker and less fit we are to handle the sickness and adversity nature throws at us.
Biologists have long been able to actually measure the value of this wildness genetically. Species with genetic diversity, developed in the wild often over thousands of years, display more fitness, more ability to survive, than those species that lose diversity through a natural or human-caused event,
Studies have shown, for instance, that it takes salmon five generations to restore this fitness, or wildness, if raised in a hatchery and returned to the wild to spawn.
Idaho saw this happen once. Sockeye salmon were cut off from their spawning grounds in Redfish Lake when Sunbeam Dam was built in 1911. When the dam was removed in 1931, sockeye began returning to Redfish, almost miraculously.
They likely came from the resident sockeye that biologists later learned lived and spawned in the lake, a few every year heading downstream looking for the Pacific. The sockeye thrived until the late 1950s, when the final dams were built on the Snake and Columbia rivers. By the early 1990s, Lonesome Larry and 15 other sockeye were taken into captivity - all that was left of the natural sockeye population.
In 2006, geneticists questioned whether the sockeye-restoration program was worth the money. They worried that there wasn't enough genetic diversity left to produce salmon that could survive the rough life in the Pacific and the 900-mile migration from Redfish to the ocean and back.
Even if the four dams on the Lower Snake River were removed, which some fisheries biologists still believe is necessary to recover the sockeye, the fish might need five generations to get back their fitness to survive, the geneticists argued.
Snake River Sockeye: It's Time to Count Only Natural-Origin Fish.
SOS has asked the NW Power and Conservation Council to count only natural-origin Snake River sockeye salmon in all future assessments of the status and needs of this endangered fish. The request comes a few months before a second Snake River sockeye hatchery opens, which means the already-wide gulf between the total return of Snake River sockeye, and the total return of sockeye of natural origin, will grow even wider. The text of this letter to the NPCC is pasted below; with PDF versions of the SOS-NPCC letter and a chart of Snake River sockeye returns developed by Bert Bowler also available for download.
SAVE OUR WILD SALMON COALITION
June 24, 2013
Bill Bradbury, Chair;
Jennifer Anders, Vice-chair; and
members Bill Booth, Tom Karier, Henry Lorenzen,
Phil Rockefeller, Pat Smith, and Jim Yost
Northwest Power and Conservation Council
851 SW Sixth Avenue, Suite 1100
Portland OR 97204
Dear Chairman Bradbury, Vice-chairwoman Anders, and Council members Booth, Karier, Lorenzen, Rockefeller, Smith and Yost,
An article in the newest Council Quarterly – On Many Fronts, a Fight to Restore Sockeye – leaves a generalized and inaccurate impression of the condition of endangered Snake River sockeye salmon. I hope this amplification will be of assistance.
I attach a chart of Snake River sockeye returns from 1954 through 2012, prepared by fisheries biologist Bert Bowler from Idaho Department of Fish and Game data.
Last year, 53 natural-origin Snake River sockeye returned to Redfish Lake. This is 2% of the recovery goal of 2,500 natural-origin fish. The highest recent return was 180 natural-origin fish in 2010, about 7% of the recovery goal. These are better than the routine single digit returns in the 1990s. But they are still abysmally low, and provide next to no ecosystem value, economic development opportunity or cultural benefit.
This is at odds with the cheerful tenor of most Snake River sockeye stories in recent years. The main reason is that those stories count hatchery sockeye (also shown on the attached chart). There may have been sound reasons to do that in the past, but no longer.
Natural-origin sockeye drive the species’ legal status, since the recovery goal is 2,500 natural-origin fish. Biologically and in terms of ecosystem function, the natural origin fish must also be the sharp focus, since only they are functioning in the full ecosystem that Snake River sockeye inhabit. For economic development, the natural origin fish must also be the focus if sustainability, self-sustainability, durability, stability, legal status and actual presence of the economic attribute being developed matter.
The genetic identities and relationships between the hatchery and natural-origin sockeye matter a good deal within the hatchery program. But the legal, biological, ecological, and economic differences that distinguish them make natural-origin sockeye the necessary focus for policymakers and people outside the program.
The Snake River sockeye hatchery program is a special case, which most groups in our coalition considered a sound emergency step over a decade ago. But those who opposed or cautioned about it were right to fear the emergency program would be used to mask or come to substitute for politically tougher but necessary actions to achieve self-sustaining natural recovery of the fish in its habitat. That habitat extends from central Idaho lakes downstream through the federal dam system to the estuary and ocean. Its condition, most notably through the dam system, is not yet good enough to restore Snake River sockeye. This is one reason our coalition is working hard to expand salmon spill and reduce salmon barging.
We believe that now, just before a second Snake River sockeye hatchery comes on line, is exactly the right time for the Council, and its federal counterparts, to explicitly reaffirm the goal of restoring natural-origin Snake River sockeye in their habitat as quickly as possible. We therefore urge the Council to stop including hatchery fish counts in its assessments of endangered Snake River sockeye returns, and instead focus only on natural-origin fish. That will provide policymakers and Northwest people the most relevant knowledge and clearest focus for sockeye investments, actions, and evaluations.
The closest Snake River sockeye have come to their recovery goal since being ESA-listed in 1992 is to achieve 7% of it, and that in just a single year. The most critically endangered salmon in the Columbia Basin in 1992 remains so 21 years later.
Thank you for considering this information and request.
cc: Steve Crow, executive director
Tony Grover, fish and wildlife division director
Mark Walker, public affairs division director
Wild salmon migration at Dagger Falls
On Sunday, June 27th, videographer Skip Armstrong headed out to Dagger Falls and caught the following footage. At 5800 feet in elevation and about 700 miles inland, Dagger Falls is one of the more famous rapids along the Middle Fork of the Salmon River (tributary to the Snake River) which stretches through central Idaho's Sawtooth Moutain Range and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
This region represents the largest and best protected salmon habitat in the lower 48 states. When we say one-of-a-kind salmon, one-of-a-kind habitat - this it it. Please enjoy the video and remember to Take Action.
Thousands of ocean miles. 900 miles inland. 7,000 feet in elevation.
Snake River salmon make a journey that is truly...
one of a kind
The miraculous story of high-altitude Snake River
salmon and the race to save them
The wild salmon and steelhead of central Idaho, southeastern Washington, and northeastern Oregon are an incredible story of nature that began over 100 million years ago. When dinosaurs roamed the earth, salmon were swimming in our waters. The journey through time and the heroic lives of Snake River salmon make them one of a kind.