In 2020-21, Northwest people and their leaders will decide if Snake River salmon and steelhead, after 6000-plus years in Idaho, will have a future here. This is the second in a series on these one-of-a-kind fish, our choices about them, and the people and enterprises, homes and communities, civics and politics involved. My intended audience is Idahoans working to keep salmon magic in our rivers, lands, and lives. -pf
B-RUN STEELHEAD - Extinction in the Heart of Idaho
From the desk of Pat Ford
May 10, 2018
Extinction is alive and much too well in central Idaho. One of Idaho’s two principal stocks of wild steelhead, B-run steelhead, are vanishing in the Clearwater and Salmon Rivers. In 2017-18 (steelhead return years run fall to spring), only 180 pair at most will mate across 2600 stream miles of habitat. This is a terrifyingly small number of a very valuable fish. If they go extinct, the gouge made in our state will not be filled.
I will come to what to do. First, let’s meet the fish, with a proviso that simplified summaries of this kind do not capture the intricate layered wildness of steelhead or salmon.
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Wild B-run steelhead trout are the largest of Idaho steelhead – mostly six to sixteen pounds, though some giants exceed 25 pounds. Most put on that growth by spending two years in the ocean. They inhabit the Clearwater, the Middle and South Forks of the Salmon, and tributaries to the Main Salmon between those forks. They exist only in the Snake Basin.
They are mountaineers as well as mariners. As adults they climb 4,000 to 6,500 feet, and 500 to 800 miles, to mate and spawn, bringing the ocean up to the heart of Idaho. They migrate higher and farther inland than any steelhead on earth.
Over thousands of years, B’s have evolved adaptations so that adults can spawn, and newborn can rear, great distances from the ocean in mountain streams with low nutrient levels and short rearing periods. Size is one of these. Their unique upstream migration is another.
From the ocean, B adults enter the Columbia and Snake Rivers in late summer and early fall, after other Idaho salmon and steelhead. After migrating 400 miles, most of it now dammed, many then over-winter at low elevations in the lower Clearwater and Salmon, before climbing the next spring to their headwater spawning areas. This capacity to pace their migration confers flexibility for responding to varying river conditions across all four seasons. Pre-dams, it provided a survival edge that compounded over time into astonishing productivity. Post-dams, it has helped them hold on the last half-century despite losing half their spawning habitat to Dworshak Dam, and the severe degradation of their dammed migratory habitats in the Columbia and lower Snake.
Their size and power, plus a migration that makes them accessible fall to spring, has made them beloved, and desired, of fishing people. Idaho biologist Steve Pettit, who has fished all across and beyond the Northwest, says he hasn’t found a fish that comes close to his fights in the 1970s with B steelhead in the Clearwater River. I have talked to few dedicated Idaho fishermen who do not perk up, with tales of their powerful cartwheeling leaps, when asked about B-run steelhead.
Today, their migratory adaptations also help B’s skirt the hot waters of human-caused climate change. Lethal and sub-lethal hot water now chronically afflicts the Columbia and Snake 45 to 60 days each summer. It is worst in 318 continuous miles of reservoir pools that have no cooler escapes or respites such as exist in flowing rivers. B’s late entry from the ocean into freshwater enables them to avoid more of this hot water than any other Idaho steelhead or salmon. They appear to be the best adapted of Idaho’s ocean fish for rising heat in their migratory waters.
Can their functions in wild Idaho, and imprints on human Idaho, be replaced if we drive them extinct? The Snake River has no other stocks with the genetic and behavioral characteristics B’s have evolved. Their gifts to central Idaho streams and watersheds, and Idaho people, are essentially irreplaceable.
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Wild B’s exemplify the main survival strategy of all steelhead and salmon: life history diversity. B steelhead are not all the same fish. They are a fluid assembly of populations in genetic, physical and behavioral motion and differentiation, driven by countless local differences in and across their habitats, which are of course also in motion through landscape disturbances small and large.
The result is a fan of diversity: different timings of life stages like spawning, migration, freshwater rearing and saltwater residence; different physical attributes like growth, size and reproductive capacity; different patterns of feeding and avoiding becoming food; different responses to differing elevations, gradients, temperature, chemistry – and so on. Diversity is their investment portfolio, resilient to the changes, predictable and random, that natural and human disturbances throw at ocean-running fish.
Steelhead evolved greater life history diversity than salmon. One example of many: at the top of the Middle Fork Salmon River, in Marsh, Bear Valley, Loon and other creeks, steelhead spawn as salmon do in the gradual S-curving valley reaches. But unlike salmon they also spawn in much steeper reaches. They can use more of each creek’s resources.
Their native diversity is one reason much of their spawning habitat – the Selway and Lochsa, the South Fork and Middle Fork Salmon – is managed for wild fish. These wild B’s have had little or no hatchery presence or influence where they reproduce.
Since it’s the main measure of steelhead health, life history diversity is also the main measure of steelhead extinction. The less diversity exists, the worse the odds to keep what is left. So the loss is double if wild B’s go: we lose the B’s themselves, and the diversity-generating capacities they give the ecological and cultural aggregate-in-motion that we call Snake River steelhead.
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Wild B steelhead evolved to seize opportunities. They have resilience and capacity to self-restore if we provide them better conditions. But we must do so quickly.
Most who read this will know what that means. Reducing severe, persisting mortality from dams and reservoirs in their migratory habitat must take priority, for B steelhead as for all Idaho’s ocean fish. So Idahoans must join
with others in the Northwest to restore the lowermost one-eighth of the Snake River. And to boost salmon spill, the safest way to get ocean-bound fish past dams, at eight dams until the lower Snake is freed, and four dams on the Columbia after that.
For Idahoans working to restore them, I think the work is best conceived in political terms. To achieve more spill and a restored Snake, we must walk a two-way street with some Idaho elected leaders so that they come to agree. We must also cause discomfort to those who choose not to agree.
For example, Congressman Raul Labrador. He is co-sponsoring legislation, HR3144, to enshrine the hydro status quo on the lower Snake and Columbia for the next four years, and to reduce spill rather than expand it. If passed, his bill will speed the extinction of B steelhead. Wittingly or not, his message to we who care about wild steelhead is “I don’t care, and Idaho voters don’t either.”
Will Idaho elected leaders whose actions speed steelhead extinction, and the loss of more steelhead fishing in our state, pay a price? What are we each doing to help exact it?
Over time, Idaho B-run steelhead will need more than dam changes. But now only dam changes can pull them back from extinction. Our path to achieve them lies through challenging, and changing, anti-steelhead policies of the State of Idaho and some of its leaders.
If you see a way, preferably public, to call out Congressman Labrador for abetting Idaho steelhead extinction, please take it. I hope knowing a bit more about Idaho’s B steelhead helps you take it.