By Keith Ridler
Nov 26, 2020
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A unique population of salmon that for thousands of years has been reproducing in one of Idaho’s wildest places experienced a small increase in adults returning to spawn this year.
But the number of chinook salmon returning to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River and its tributaries is just a tiny fraction of historic numbers, experts said.
“More is better, but it’s still abysmal numbers,” said Russ Thurow, a research fisheries scientist with the U.S. Forest Service based in the small city of Salmon. “We’re bouncing around just above extinction."
A survey completed in September of spawning beds found that about 900 chinook salmon, which can surpass 20 pounds, returned this year compared to 320 last year.
Most of the basin is protected in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. It contains about 460 miles of still pristine spawning habitat that in the 1800s experienced an annual return of an estimated 150,000 adult salmon.
Spawning bed surveys from the 1950s and 1960s led to an estimate of nearly 50,000 salmon returning those years before the runs plummeted following the completion of dams on the Snake River.
Middle Fork Salmon River chinook salmon have a pristine habitat, are not influenced by salmon hatcheries and are rarely caught by anglers based on studies that track tagged salmon. That isolates dams used for hydropower as the main problem limiting the fish’s recovery.
Salmon from Idaho must pass through four dams on the Snake River in eastern Washington and four more on the Columbia River.
Throughout the Columbia River Basin, more than $16 billion has been spent over the past three decades trying to save salmon and steelhead.
In a decision criticized by environmentalists, the U.S. government in July announced that four huge dams on the Snake River in Washington state will not be removed.
“Until we do a better job of reducing those harms caused by the hydro systems, and especially for Snake River fish, I think that we’re going to continue to spend a lot of money and not deliver results,” said Joseph Bogaard of the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition.