Wild Salmon Center article: some IOGA thoughts.
In this post we’d like to highlight a recent study reported by @wildsalmoncenter that, while it might not have a national-news-making headline, has potentially very powerful implications for Idaho chinook salmon, and our efforts at IOGA to advocate for the retirement and breach of the Lower Snake dams.
Here’s the gist of the study (though you can also read it for yourself at https://wildsalmoncenter.org/2023/04/18/are-cold-water-and-diverse-strategies-the-key-to-chinook-success/): Spring/summer chinook are struggling throughout much of their range, which is from the Sacramento River in California, north through Alaska. This encompasses us here in Idaho, where it’s no secret that wild Chinook recovery is a knock-down, drag-out; even despite the cleverly optimistic (and often misleading/confusing, whether or not it’s intentional) language you read in our local headlines. In a lot of that range, including here, wild spring/summer Chinook are circling the drain. Still not groundbreaking but hang on a minute…
…This study identifies some populations where spring/summer chinook are STABLE, or RECOVERING. This is a particularly interesting sentence from WSC’s article: “In Oregon’s Clackamas and Sandy Rivers, spring Chinook have also made a remarkable recovery following dam removals and other fish passage corrections.”
The article also states that “Some spring Chinook populations also remain strong in watersheds where cold water is reliably accessible—as well as in other systems where habitat restoration, dam removal, and fish passage improvements are protecting and enhancing access to intact habitats.”
These results and this article are important for a couple of reasons. One: they further refute one already-tired (and factually inaccurate) talking point in the argument against the restoration of the Lower Snake; which is that salmon and steelhead populations are all declining throughout their geographical range- and thus, there’s no way the problem is the Lower Snake dams! (For the record, no one is saying the Lower Snake dams are THE problem, but rather that they’re the biggest problem we can readily solve.)
Second reason this article is important: it further reinforces the urgency of the need to retire and breach the Lower Snake dams. The authors collaborated with NOAA Fisheries, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to gather and analyze data. WDFW has been squarely neutral on dam removal, and NOAA Fisheries recently (last summer) published a statement acknowledging the need to breach the dams to recover Snake basin salmon. For years before that, though, NOAA consistently declined to recommend dam breaching as a salmon recovery tool. My point is that though Wild Salmon Center clearly has a bias toward salmon recovery, they used the best available data from unbiased agencies, and collaborated with those agencies on a study that simply reports the actual status of Chinook salmon populations. There’s a clear trend that salmon populations in river systems whose hydroelectric dams were recently retired and removed have a much stronger tendency toward recovery and/or stability.
Third, the study and article identify diverse life-history strategies and the availability of cold water as key components for Chinook salmon success. This probably isn’t a shock to whoever’s still reading this. That’s fine. Here’s the thing: Diverse life history strategies in our wild fish; and cold, clean water to rear them in - that’s what we have in Idaho. We have a huge contiguous wilderness area (Frank Church, Gospel Hump, Selway-Bitterroot) that contains the headwaters of the Salmon and Clearwater Rivers, and those headwaters are overwhelmingly unimpacted by development and extractive industries. They remain some of the last, best pristine salmon spawning and rearing habitat, still shaded by old-growth Ponderosa, cedar, and Doug fir, still fed by snowmelt and groundwater springs. As far as diverse life history strategies go, have you ever watched salmon jumping Dagger Falls, or swimming past under the Fir Creek bridge, or just seen photos on social media of wild salmon caught and released? Were they all the same size and shape? Sorry, not to be patronizing, I know the answer. No, of course they weren’t! That’s diversity in life history strategies. In other words, some fish migrate downstream at age-1. Some go at age 2. Some spend one year in the ocean, others two, others three, others four or more. And that’s to say nothing of their strategies within the headwaters creeks where they were spawned and hatched.
To sum it up, this Wild Salmon Center article makes a strong case for what we already know to be true: that breaching the Lower Snake dams will have a positive impact on our salmon just as it has in other watersheds whose dams have been removed; and in Idaho’s wildest rivers we already have the conditions that help them to thrive.
The one thing we don’t have? An unimpeded migration route to the ocean and back. It’s time, folks.