Survey: 80% of Idahoans Believe Salmon Recovery is Important

This week, Boise State University’s School of Public Service released results of its Idaho 2023 Public Policy Survey. This survey’s been around for eight years, and tracks public opinion across the state on a range of issues. The “Environment” component of this year’s survey consisted primarily of two big questions, and we’re most interested in one of them: “In your opinion is it very important, somewhat important, not very important, or not at all important to recover salmon populations in Idaho?” 

Results were interesting.  Some of them were very encouraging, others were a little frustrating.  This is of course to be expected: ask any hundred people from your town about something you feel strongly about - some of their responses will affirm all your life choices, and others will make you want to crawl into a hole and await the collapse of civilization. Rather than crawling into that hole, whether metaphorical or literal, we’re going to discuss what the survey results tell us, and hopefully offer some insight into the public perception challenges facing Idaho’s widespread salmon/steelhead recovery efforts. 

The heavy-hitting question is in bold above.  In response, 44.4% of Idaho residents said they find it very important to recover salmon to the state.  That’s close enough to half to find some optimism! What’s more, 35.4% feel that salmon recovery is somewhat important. Not only do these people not consider salmon recovery unimportant, but implied here, in my opinion, is that some of these folks could probably be convinced into that “very important” category.  Does this recommend a specific new course of action? Probably not for most of us; I would guess that if you’re reading this, you’re already doing at least something to spread the word about salmon recovery.  I think this just reinforces the idea that intentional education about the subject can be effective. In other words, if those 35.4% of Idahoans were to suddenly view salmon recovery in a new and inspiring context, it seems possible that a lot of them would join that 44.4%. Baby steps, but steps. 

So an even 13% of us believe salmon recovery’s not important. I’m not sure what to do with that.  Certainly there are people in that category whose minds will never change, and of course the opposite.  Honestly though, 13% is few enough of us that I’m hardly even bothered by that number.  In my experience, far more than 13% of people are tremendously unhelpful in just about any situation, and seem to be truly unable to transcend this about themselves. Can’t win ‘em all, right? 

Finally, fewer than one in ten - 7% - had no opinion.  I’ll take that too.  Some of them can be helped to acquire an opinion, and I think those of us who care whether salmon persist or not should be the ones to help them with that.  Watch for those opportunities. 

When we get to the secondary question - “There are many strategies for recovering salmon populations in Idaho. Which of the following do you think should be the top priority in salmon recovery efforts?”  - things get a little less clear, and I think these are the results that indicate public perception hasn’t exactly caught up to the best available information.  The most popular option was “Habitat restoration” coming in at 28.6% of respondents. “Infrastructure change to improve passage” wasn’t too far behind, at 24.2%.  However, in our state we’re sitting in a pretty unique situation when it comes to salmon conservation, downstream passage, and river habitat.  It’s no secret that all over the Northwest and beyond, salmon habitat has been badly degraded by development, extractive industries, etc. In a lot of salmon recovery efforts in a lot of river systems, there certainly are glaring issues of habitat loss that contribute heavily to local salmon declines.  I think often of the myriad of Oregon coast rivers that remain undammed, have no hatchery introgression, experience very little or no commercial fishing or focused predation, and are unharvested.  Yet their salmon are still declining: habitat loss is a likely candidate. So very few of those rivers’ Coast Range headwaters are unlogged (it may seem superficially unrelated to in-stream conditions, but intensive and overextractive logging actually can severely degrade spawning habitat by allowing erosion of fine sediments into the streambed. This prevents the easy oxygenation of fish eggs that clean gravel provides).  

On the other hand, Idaho has a handful of wilderness areas that together comprise the largest roadless area in the continental United States.  Roadless also means essentially free from the development and extractive industries that have harmed salmon habitat all over the Northwest. Exceptions exist, of course, but there are enough undeveloped, relatively pristine salmon-bearing rivers and creeks within Idaho’s wilderness areas that if habitat loss/degradation were truly the primary roadblock to salmon recovery, you’d expect those undeveloped waterways to support healthy and thriving salmon populations.  In short, they don’t.  Their wild salmon and steelhead are in the midst of the same decline as the rest of the Upper Snake basin’s fish.  So the on-ground reality actually defies the largest group consensus of this secondary question. 

Moving right along to another discouraging finding, 23% of Idahoans believe that “Management of hatcheries and harvest” is the most important action category for salmon recovery.  I’m not about to claim that management of these components should be absent from broader salmon recovery efforts, but very, very solid numbers confirm that they’re far from the most important. In fact, it’s important to understand that Idaho’s salmon and steelhead hatcheries aren’t really recovery tools at all: they were overwhelmingly built to provide a source of harvestable fish to offset the decline of wild fish that was expected to follow the construction of the Lower Snake River dams.  Consider this: no hatcheries were built to serve the Middle Fork of the Salmon, or the Selway River. If hatcheries’ main purpose was to provide more and more fish for “recovery”, why would these two rivers, which are shining examples of pristine habitat, have been left out in the cold? The answer is that neither is particularly accessible to fishermen for most of the salmon and steelhead fishing seasons. Thus, there was little to no demand for harvestable fish from them.  Additionally, fisheries managers around the Northwest (and indeed the world) are beginning to rightly become skeptical of using hatcheries as recovery tools in any case: decades of data are showing detrimental effects of hatchery fish on wild populations, and significantly decreased fitness or survivability of hatchery fish.  In short, they simply aren’t a viable replacement for wild fish - except as a harvest opportunity. 

The harvest component of this question is not about to be left out of the salmon recovery equation, but again, hard numbers have shown for years that it simply isn’t a driving source of salmon mortality. By the time Idaho’s salmon traverse the Columbia and Snake hydrosystems on their way to the ocean, over half of those who left their natal streams are dead.  The ocean, which is a big and unfriendly place, kills most of the leftovers. By the time those survivors return to Idaho, the amount of them that are harvested are a tiny fraction of salmon mortality.  To turn this dial simply won’t have a significant impact on recovery. Again, this perspective probably has to do with a lack of truly accurate information on the subject. If the breakdown of salmon mortality numbers from egg to adult were common knowledge, it seems unlikely that anyone would hold this belief. 

Next down the line, 7.7% of survey respondents cited “Public outreach and awareness” as the most important tool for salmon recovery. Given the last two paragraphs, I can almost get there. However, public awareness alone isn’t going to recover salmon.  It’s a hugely important component of recovery campaigns, to be sure - it’s what this blog post is aiming toward. More and better public awareness and outreach might move some of action category #1’s proponents into category #2; that’d be a service. Or it might bring some of #3’s people over, we can only hope! But it’s not going to improved smolt-to-adult return ratios, which are the best metric we have for discussing survival and recovery.  It’s not going to pass more fish downstream safely. 

At least 16% of respondents remained agnostic about the best course of action.  As with the self-aware uninformed from the survey’s primary question, I see some possibility here for education.  These 16% don’t have a strong opinion yet.  They could develop a helpful opinion if presented with key information.  It’s hard not to feel a little bit greedy about these folks.  I want  to get to them before the fearmongering about their electric bills does.  I hope they hear or see a well-produced news story.  If you talk to one of them, help out, ok? If you’ve been following along, by now you know what to try to get across. 

The survey summary wraps up with two integrated findings: first, with the folks who view salmon recovery as important, the most popular recovery strategy was habitat restoration. No surprise there, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Second, folks who don’t view salmon recovery as important were most likely to identify hatchery and harvest management as its most effective tool.  I’d like to point out the irony of people thinking salmon recovery is unimportant favoring the most expensive, labor-intensive, and long-term ineffective recovery tool as the best one available.  This isn’t meant to be judgemental, instead I think it just highlights the size of the mismatch between public perception of recovery efforts and those efforts’ actual effectiveness.  

To conclude, I think there are great reasons to be encouraged by this survey’s results, and the foremost and best is that the vast majority of residents of our state believe salmon recovery is important. If you’re an outfitter or guide looking to help your guests become better informed on the issue, know that 80% of your neighbors are already acutely interested.  Despite some differences of opinion about methodology, they’re already primed for engagement.  That 80% agreement is an excellent starting point, so take heart: whatever you say, whatever story you tell or statistics you cite, will almost certainly have an effect.  So don’t hold back.